Dr Samantha Sharpe: Building back better

How can we help small business communities after the bushfire crisis? Focus on funding to ‘build back better’, says Dr Samantha Sharpe from the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures.

Almost three years ago the Central Business District of Lismore was flooded when ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie made its way down the east coast of Australia.

One of the store owners, whose shop had been completely inundated, considered whether to rebuild, thinking what would be the point, if it could all happen again in another few years. He did decide to re-build, but to build back better, using shelving attached to hoists, removing carpet and gyprock, replacing it with concrete and marine grade carpet, and putting other cupboards on wheels. So next time a flood comes the impact would be minimal.

Flooded street in Lismore

In the wake of the current bushfire emergency there will be many small businesses making the same decision – do they re-build? A more important question, discussed in a recent Conversation article, should be, how do we help these businesses build back better?

Building back better is one of the principles of the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The Framework makes recovery and reconstruction an opportunity to build future resilience and reduce vulnerabilities to natural hazards.

From recent research we know that to build back better requires more resources. First, a business needs to know what ‘better’ looks like for them, as shown in the example above, better is going to be specific for each business. Second, how to access better; for example, how to access new and improved building materials and techniques, find and hire available skilled tradespeople to install these materials. Businesses also need to be able to access additional financial resources, as newer, innovative materials will have a higher up-front cost.

For a small business, building back better isn’t just about restoring a premises that might have been destroyed or damaged. It means looking at the business in its totality. This includes relationships with suppliers, customers and staff.

In this regard, building back better should be something done by every small business in a community affected by a disaster. Because all businesses tend to be affected indirectly even if they don’t have to deal with a direct impact. We have seen just how far and wide those indirect effects are in recent weeks, with businesses that depend on tourism facing a downturn despite not being in a fire-ravaged area

The financial assistance offered to small businesses has evolved in recent years and includes a mix of grants and loans. For businesses that suffered direct impacts to their premises or equipment as a result of the bush fires, they can access a $50,000 recovery grant. This is up from $15,000 previously. For the majority of businesses this assistance, in addition to any insurance pay-outs will fall well short of requirements for re-building, let alone building better. 

Financial assistance is minimal for businesses indirectly affected. State and the Commonwealth Government are currently discussing financial measures that will extend to businesses with indirect impacts as a result of the bush fires, but current recovery arrangements are not set up to do this. New arrangements will be needed and quickly if they are to help recovery.  

Disasters from natural hazards are a constant in Australia – floods, bush fires, cyclones and storms. In the ten years to 2016, Australia spent $18.2 billion per year as a result of these events, by 2050 this is projected to increase to $39bn per year. The frequency of disasters from natural hazards in Australia means we will need a greater focus on preparedness for these events if we are to start avoiding some of these costs. Preparedness includes considering risks and how they can be minimised, but also thinking about what building back better would look like, and how to access it.

Many elements of building back better; strong business networks, economic diversity, clusters, learning opportunities and technological adaptability are very much things all communities would like to invest in. That is one piece of good news, preparedness pays a double dividend; avoiding impacts of future disasters, but also providing co-benefits from building more resilient and vital communities.

Dr Sharpe is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures. Her current research focuses on understanding the intersection of climate change and the future of work, and understanding organisational adaptation behaviours at the firm, sector, and geographical levels.