Hours after proclaiming building on New South Wales’ flood plains needed to stop, the premier, Dominic Perrottet, was standing in a construction zone for emergency housing that, just months earlier, lay under water.
The premier’s visit to the Mullumbimby temporary housing site – where construction is being overseen by Resilience NSW – was kept secret from the media and locals.
It came just days after the agency told residents that “a full flood study is not required for this development and will not be undertaken”.
Works on the vacant crown land in the centre of town – a known flood plain that went under in February – began in July, days after residents were first notified that it had been selected to hold 60 temporary modular homes for flood victims.
The site has since been layered with between 80cm and 1.5 metres of fill, according to the document circulated to residents, who were concerned it would impact water flows for surrounding properties.
For Marlene Crompton, the February flood was the worst she had seen in her 80 years in Mullumbimby. She lives down the road from the site and fears the development would make the next flood worse.
She is part of a group that believes the government needs to “stop it and move that fill out”.
Crompton wants to see other flood victims rehoused but said: “It’s not much point putting 180 people in temporary homes, if you’re going to put 500 of us at risk for the next thing.
“[The government needs to] admit they’ve made a massive error of judgment and get it out,” she said.
“I’m hideously disappointed and shocked.”
Rosie Bookallil, who lives across the road, said she was astounded by the amount of fill at the site.
“Watching it go up and up and up every day has been really anxiety-producing when we’ve all still got effects from the February flood,” Bookallil said.
What is not in question is the dire need for medium-term housing, with the government estimating 1,064 people in the northern rivers are currently in emergency accommodation.
And while the housing pressures in Mullumbimby might be more exacerbated than in other parts of the state, they do provide a microcosm of the debate that’s sure to ensue when the government seeks to implement its new plan to halt development in high-risk flood areas.
“The first thing is to stop; stop developing in areas that are subject to substantial flooding because then we’re not making any progress at all – we’re going backwards,” Perrottet said in Lismore on Wednesday.
The premier’s comments were music to the ears of Byron shire councillor Duncan Dey, a civil engineer specialising in flood analysis before joining local government, who is against the Mullumbimby temporary housing solution.
Dey has cast doubt on a letter sent by Resilience NSW to residents this week with a list of “frequently asked questions”.
The document stated that a “full flood study” would not be done because of the urgency of the project, yet said the “site was reviewed with consideration to flood risk and flood planning”.
It said the homes would be placed on the fill so they were “raised above the 1% flood mark”.
The agency also claimed fill had been “recommended by qualified civil engineers as the most effective site construction technique to minimise flood risk to both residents of the housing site and surrounding properties”.
“It’s junk. It can’t happen. It’s a hydrologic impossibility,” Dey said.
Ballina Greens MP Tamara Smith said she was grateful Perrottet came so she could show him the “madness of putting flood refugees on flood-prone land with several metres of landfill that will mean worse flooding for surrounding neighbours”.
“I am so mindful that flood refugees in the Mullumbimby community are just desperate to be placed in suitable temporary accommodation,” she said.
A government spokesperson said the site was chosen “through a comprehensive review of all suitable land in the area”.
“Flood safety for the community and residents is a priority, with detailed design work, including flood mitigation and stormwater management, currently being undertaken to ensure temporary housing units … are installed above flood levels,” the spokesperson said.