Rebuilding Homes, Empowering People

Ben Hubbard, former Chief Executive of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority in Australia, shares with Challenge his experience, and the unexpected rewards, of community engagement and leadership.

February 7, 2009: Ben Hubbard was walking his dog Oskar in Melbourne City, Australia. It was 8am, but he was already feeling the 35 degree Celsius heat, which would later climb to a record 46.4 degrees.

This day became known as Black Saturday – as high heat, strong winds, low humidity and a prolonged drought made tinder out of the state of Victoria.

The 700 fires killed 173 people and burnt 2,133 properties. Over 8,000 livestock were lost, and an estimated one million wild animals killed.

In all, 4,300 km2 of land (about 6.7 times the size of Singapore) were burnt, affecting 33 communities. As he watched events unfold on TV, the 35-year-old – Chief of Staff to then Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, now Australia’s PM – did not imagine that by June 2009 he would be Chief Executive of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority (VBRRA).

The authority was set up three days after Black Saturday to coordinate the largest rebuilding and recovery programme in Victoria’s history.

Visiting the affected areas, Mr Hubbard was shocked. “It was as far as the eye could see,” he said of the scale of damage. “You would see a letterbox and a driveway but no house; the cleanup was so effectively done by the authority that most homes destroyed had been cleaned up by early June.”

His first task was to provide structure and priority for VBRRA’s activities. “[It was] very focused on the immediate and the urgent, but there wasn’t a roadmap for dealing with the broad set of recovery and reconstruction activities,” he said, “and if you don’t have a plan, you can’t secure resources either.”

He dug his heels in to get the Rebuilding Together Plan out by October 2009. The AU$193 million state-wide strategy, which included 1,100 proposals, was the result of working with the 33 communities’ recovery committees that had outlined their needs and priorities after workshops, group discussions and written submissions were considered.

Beating Bureaucracy

Despite its efforts, the authority’s work still received flak. A donor described the process as “stifled in bureaucracy” and views were carried in The Age, an Australian newspaper, calling the rebuilding a “failure” and that the authorities acted too slowly on commercial projects to kickstart the local economy of Marysville only 15 months after Black Saturday.

Mr Hubbard admitted that some things could have been done more quickly, for example, when it came to constructing large public buildings delivering rebuilding advisory services.

“We chose to deliver them using donor support led by a prominent Victorian businessman, and we had a range of building companies help us and that took a lot longer. If we had done those earlier, then we could have had greater activity in the middle of those towns which needed people around.”

One of the key lessons VBRRA learnt was that effective service delivery happens when there is a coordinated and citizen-centred approach. So a hotline, community service hubs and case managers were some of the services put in place to help residents navigate the complex issues in reconstruction.

People who had suffered trauma, said Mr Hubbard, “didn’t want to hear a public servant pointing to another public servant or another department, they wanted to know who was accountable” so “governments need to work very hard to minimise bureaucracy and complexity.”

The people of Kinglake, for example, wanted a new petrol station after both stations were razed. For months they were taking petrol back in unsafe ways, raising public safety concerns.

Although this was outside VBRRA’s jurisdiction, the town people “thought it was a critical issue to them, and so it must be for us (VBRRA),” said Mr Hubbard, who took on this unique challenge as it was distracting people from other reconstruction issues. Clearly, too, the private sector was not about to step in. Two months later, his team managed to set up a petrol station, now run by a local operator.

Mystery of the wooden bridge

In late 2010, a community leader alerted Mr Hubbard of a property-owner who had been unable to rebuild his home for two years, as the bridge connecting his home to the main road had been burnt down. As the owner was the only user of the bridge, no one else would rebuild it as it costs AU$100,000.

A VBRRA team played detective, taking weeks to sift through decades of public documents to discover a 40-year-old gazette identifying the local council to be responsible for rebuilding that very bridge. The authority was then able to assist the council to successfully apply for standing grant arrangements.

Building more than Homes

The VBRRA was always conscious of engaging and empowering communities and individuals in the rebuilding process, giving them time and space to “recover at their own rate and build their own capacity”, so they don’t become totally dependent on the government.

“Those places… where public assets were largely destroyed, they had the unique opportunity to reconfigure those assets and they took that opportunity. But that takes time to talk to the community and to get agreement on what the model looks like.”

The result was modern, high quality public facilities clustered in precincts that would attract new residents. “If we had moved in quickly, we would have replaced like for like, and wouldn’t have gotten such a strong set of assets.”

Contrast that to Cyclone Tracy that devastated Darwin in 1974. Then, homes were rebuilt en masse, but now times have changed, said Mr Hubbard.

“We took a different view, we gave people the support, for example, advice on rebuilding, and funding… but ultimately they had to make decisions themselves and people expected that freedom. Victoria is a very mature society and people want those choices.”

The consultative and empowering approach has reaped rewards: “What we’ve built is a range of communities that have strength in connections they didn’t have before the fires… They have a joint sense of purpose… and resilience and capacity for the future. There’s been some good out of very tragic events.”

This is why, even as VBRRA gets ready to close by mid-2011, it has drawn up plans to continue building community leadership and capacity in bushfire affected communities well into the year 2012.


Mr Ben Hubbard was a speaker at the 2011 Service Excellence Conference organised by the Civil Service College. Mr Hubbard left the VBRRA in February 2011 and is now Chief of Staff to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

  • POSTED ON
    Mar 16, 2011
  • TEXT BY
    Bridgette See
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