With its palm-studded beaches and beautiful bay, river and canal, the City of Port Phillip in Melbourne is a dream destination for those with their hearts set on a room with a water view.
Out-of-towners, too, cherish the area for its iconic piers and Luna Park, the Espy and Palais, and the towering Ngargee Tree, a meeting place for the Bunurong people, the Traditional Owners of the lands.
But planning experts believe many residents and property owners are under informed about how climate change will increase their risk of flooding in coming decades. They say Port Phillip residents – living in suburbs including Port Melbourne, St Kilda, Albert Park, Port Melbourne, Elwood and the urban renewal precinct of Fishermans Bend – are at particular risk due to the low-lying nature of the bayside suburbs.
How big a risk? It depends who you ask. One critic warns sea level rise and storm surge projections relied on by the local council are failing by not planning for a “worst case” scenario that could inundate large areas of the bayside suburbs.
The criticism comes as planning and insurance experts say the lack of accurate data is lulling property owners into a false sense of security – and that real estate agents spruik the ocean view, not the possible flooding. One property expert says while sea views currently attract a premium, the appreciation rate of those assets may decline as flood risks are better understood.
Reading the fine print
Buyer beware is a central tenet of the Australian property market. Whether it’s easements and overlays or termites and wiring, the system relies largely on people doing their own due diligence before buying. Why? Because they will feel the benefit or loss in comfort and value.
In this scenario, climate change risk is just one of many risks prospective property owners in the City of Port Phillip face. But trying to nail down that risk is confusing.
The council’s website has a variety of predictions among its information and commissioned reports.
One page for residents indicates sea levels in the area will rise by around 24 centimetres by 2050. Elsewhere, an engineering report about Fisherman’s Bend predicts sea levels in the area will rise 20 centimetres by 2025, 55 centimetres by 2050 and up to 1.2 metres by 2100.
When asked, Deputy Mayor Andrew Bond says: “We align our predictions with the Victorian Government’s – 80 centimetres by 2100.”
Meanwhile, council’s most recent climate action update projects sea levels would rise only about 12 centimetres by 2030 under medium and high emissions scenarios. But by 2070, sea levels would rise 32 to 42 centimetres, plus “additional tens of centimetres” if other tipping points, such as polar ice sheet melting, are reached, according to Victoria’s Climate Science Report, on which the council’s projection relies.
High tides, strong winds and low-pressure systems may create “storm tides” that could double or quadruple that risk: so a 50 centimetre mean sea level rise could result in storm tides rising from 1.1 metres to 2.2 metres in some areas of the state by the end of the century under a high emissions scenario, according to the report.
In a worst case scenario, within decades, a sea level rise and storm tide could combine to inundate properties two or three metres above sea level. Buyer beware indeed.
Climate scientist David Karoly says sea level rise is already impacting coastal properties and warns that flooding will be an increasing problem in the coming decades.
A recent Age investigation found communities and councils along Victoria’s 2500 kilometre coastline have been left to flounder about where is safe to build and which public assets to protect in the face of rising seas, due to a lack of state government leadership over coastal erosion and flooding. The hazards facing the City of Port Phillip are also being faced by communities as varied as those living along the Great Ocean Road, near Geelong beaches and beside sections of the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers.
Karoly warns sea levels will continue to rise for between 200 and 500 years, even after global warming has stopped. Port Phillip is not an outlier, then.
Anyone with an ocean or bay view, or on low-lying land near creeks and rivers, will want to sniff the prevailing wind.
Planning for the worst case scenario
When preparing for the threat of climate change, “the worst-case scenario should always be paramount”, says long-term climate campaigner David Spratt, from the Melbourne-based Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration. Spratt believes sea level rises have not been adequately considered in the planning for the massive redevelopment underway in Fisherman’s Bend, a suburb of Port Phillip.
In its official plan, the Fisherman’s Bend Framework states that its urban renewal project will see 480 hectares of land become home to 80,000 new residents and support 80,000 new jobs.
“If you go to coastalrisk.com.au … with a two-metre sea level rise [and] one-metre storm surge, the whole of that is underwater,” says Spratt, referring to a geospatial tool that allows the public to visualise the impact of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted climate change scenarios on the Australian coastline.
But such a scenario playing out at Fisherman’s Bend and the broader bay area anytime before 2100 is “of very low probability”, says Dr Kathleen McInnes, a senior research scientist at CSIRO Environment.
McInnes, who leads the CSIRO sea level rise and coasts team, says the latest IPCC report projections indicate a 1.2 metre rise for the most severe emission scenario considered by 2100. “Although they do provide a higher value of 1.6 metres for risk averse planners, that assumes the Antarctic contribution to sea-level rise is faster than current science suggests,” she says.
“To reach three metres [in Port Phillip Bay] would require the combination of storm surge and tides to account for the remainder of total water level above the sea-level rise.
“The probability of getting a one metre storm surge coinciding with a high-water spring tide is low, less than one per cent per annum.”
The future of flood mapping
Planners are highly critical of the inconsistent information about flooding available to the public. In August 2022, the Victorian division of the Planning Institute of Australia, called on the Andrews government to develop a framework for updating the state’s “patchy and outdated” flood mapping.
“Flood mapping is not consistently reflected in the current planning controls and where these controls are applied, they do not reflect the dynamic nature of flood risk under climate change,” says Gabby McMillan, the head of the Victorian division of the peak body.
“At present there is a patchwork of datasets gathered and applied inconsistently by Councils and water authorities, who often do not have the budgets to pay for the necessary modelling, or the political authority to apply controls at a local level.”
It’s a call gone unheeded by the state government. When asked about flood mapping at a press conference in October, Premier Daniel Andrews said he was not responsible for solving the problem, saying “town planning in the main is a matter for local government”.
Port Phillip’s Deputy Mayor Andrew Bond disagrees, describing town planning in the state as “a complex system with shared responsibility across the Victorian Government, councils and other entities”.
Bond works collaboratively with Melbourne Water, but says that the water authority, rather than council, is the floodplain authority for any planning permit in a flood prone area. “Melbourne Water assesses any referred planning applications for flood implications and applies conditions for approval if required,” he says.
The City of Port Phillip updates its land-use planning every 7-10 years, Bond says. Flood mapping comes from various sources, with Melbourne Water the designated catchment management authority, the council responsible for smaller local drains, and data on sea level rise captured by the Department of Energy, Environment, and Climate Action (DEECA) which is currently undertaking the Port Phillip Bay Coastal Hazard Assessment.
“We anticipate receiving information in the first half of 2023 which will then be used to update the special building overlay for flooding,” Bond says.
He acknowledges apparent inconsistencies in climate change impact predictions on the council website, which arise through variables such as data and report dates, locations for predictions; and climate change modelling scenarios used. He says all council projections draw on data prepared by state or national government departments and agencies.
Skyrocketing home insurance costs
The high price of climate change is already emerging in home insurance costs. Home insurance premiums in Australia grew by 5.9% in 2021, the highest increase in the last seven years. According to GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, the average home insurance premium in Australia is expected to grow from $830 in 2021 to $917 by 2026 due to more frequent and severe natural disasters. It predicts about 4 per cent of Australian dwellings will be uninsurable by 2030.
Dr Jyoti Shukla, a property lecturer at the University of Melbourne, believes state governments and councils should provide clear information to residents, but consumers also have a responsibility to inform themselves.
Governments have a responsibility to regulate the risks of “natural” hazards, Shukla says. However she believes the uncertainty of the climate change trajectory is causing every level of government to hesitate, partly due to fears of a political backlash from property owners whose asset values might be affected.
“I don’t think they … want to pass on any information that is going to have a negative impact on the value [of property prices].”
Shukla says insurance companies may be a better source for residents assessing the potential risks of a particular property. Insurers use the best information available, as they will be negatively affected if they do not accurately price risk. According to Shukla, every prospective owner needs to take the same responsibility.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with putting it all on the customer, because the customer is going to be the most affected party and therefore most interested in obtaining all accurate information, both good and bad,” she says.
Ocean views v flood risk
All politics is local, as the saying goes. Climate change activist groups, such as the South East (Naarm/Melbourne) MP Engagement Group, are part of an interstate network pressuring their local MP to prioritise the climate crisis.
“What actions the government should take has historically been complicated by the incremental nature of climate change,” says Port Phillip Baykeeper and founding director of the EcoCentre, Neil Blake. He supports consumer research as a “precursor [to] providing a mandate for governments to take action”. According to this logic, residents will support governments taking stronger action if they fear personal loss.
Not everyone is swimming with this tide. Elwood resident Sandra Levine lives about 600 metres from the bay, where she moved in July 2020. Levine says she is unaware of predicted sea level rises, which she does not view as urgent for herself or for her generation. “I don’t spend my time with it … I think it’s sort of in its infancy in some respects,” says the semi-retired retreat facilitator.
“In terms of sea levels going up, then it potentially could flood,” Levine says. “But … that seems a bit extreme at this point”.
University of Melbourne property specialist Professor Piyush Tiwari has undertaken research on the impacts of sea level rise on property values.
According to Tiwari, the risk of future flooding is not fully understood by homebuyers, who prioritise an ocean view despite flood risk. Melbourne homes on the water attract a premium of almost 40 per cent, according to research published in August.
Tiwari’s findings suggest that properties vulnerable to future flooding may not be pricing the risk in their current value. However, the likely increase in value will be subdued, he argues.
“If you have a coastal property, you pay a lot for the view that you get,” says Tiwari. “So the sea view premium in the current market is worth far more than the risk.”
Tiwari says even if flood and climate change data improves and is made accessible, he is sceptical real estate agents will be forthcoming in property listings without policy reform.
“They tend to do [only] what the regulation requires them to do,” he says.
When contacted on realestate.com.au, several real estate agents either stated there were no flood risks in relation to properties for sale in St. Kilda, or avoided responding to flood risk queries. The suburb profile on the website also does not mention the risk of flooding.
The Real Estate Institute of Victoria (REIV) says agents and vendors are required to disclose “material facts” to prospective buyers. This covers “anything that a buyer would find material, such as if there has been a flood that has impacted the property,” according to an REIV spokesperson.
He added buyers are also encouraged to educate themselves.
“We encourage buyers to conduct their own research, follow the [Consumer Affairs] due diligence checklist, and ask agents about the property’s history – including past floodings.”
With future flooding likely to dwarf past events due to climate change, some Port Phillip residents are mobilising to tackle the issue.
St Kilda resident Helen Halliday, is highly critical of the lack of clear information for people living and working in the area.
“You should be able to [pinpoint] exactly where you live [and] understand if you live on a floodplain,” says Halliday, a founding member of local activist group the Port Phillip Emergency Climate Action Network (PECAN). “You should be able to know what risk your property is at.
“None of this is immediately available in this municipality.”
This investigation is by students at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism is supported and co-published by independent media not-for-profit Right Now.