Politics

Valuable land plans spark concerns

The Government has revealed a proposal to protect valuable agricultural land from urban development - but some fear the policy will exacerbate the housing shortage already blighting parts of the country.

Plans to crack down on the use of high-quality agricultural land has sparked fears that the Government may go too far in inhibiting urban development.

Environment Minister David Parker and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor on Wednesday released a consultation document for a policy change to deal with the negative impacts of urban sprawl into more rural parts of the country.

In April 2018, a report from the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ warned that urban expansion could block future options for agricultural production in New Zealand.

Nearly 30 percent of new urban areas developed between 1990 and 2008 were on some of the country’s most productive land, while in 2013 lifestyle blocks took up a tenth of the most versatile soil.

To tackle the issue, the Government is proposing a National Policy Statement (NPS) for Highly Productive Land which would require councils to properly identify highly productive land within their boundaries and ensure enough of it is protected for primary production.

The draft NPS would also force councils to protect the same land from “inappropriate subdivision, use and development”.

However, the consultation document says the objective of the NPS “is not to provide absolute protection of highly productive land” or imply that there should be no loss of any such land within a district.

"The purpose of the proposed NPS is to require councils to consider the highly productive land resources within their region or district to ensure its availability for primary production now and for future generations.”

“In some circumstances, this would not be practical due to population growth pressures and other constraints on where urban development can be located.

“Rather, the purpose of the proposed NPS is to require councils to consider the highly productive land resources within their region or district to ensure its availability for primary production now and for future generations.”

While officials had considered whether the NPS should apply to land that had already been identified as a future urban area, excluding them would ensure the standards did not undermine existing work that had been done by councils.

“While urban development is not enabled until the district plan provides for such development, the identification of future urban areas...sends a clear signal to landowners and developers of where future growth can occur [and] individuals, developers and councils will make investment decisions on this basis.”

The cost-benefit analysis suggests the changes may have only a limited fiscal impact: the low- to medium-end scenario suggests related benefits of $71 million over 30 years and costs of $70m during the same period, resulting in a net benefit of only $1m.

However, the document says the limitations of the analysis include its failure to give a monetary value to the “intrinsic value of natural capital in the form of protection of highly productive land”, or account for the costs related to less flexibility for landowners to subdivide their property.

Announcing the release of the draft NPS for consultation, Environment Minister David Parker said it and a separate NPS on urban development would “ensure we get the balance right and that the development we need is in the right place”.

“We need to house our people and to feed them too,” Parker said.

Potatoes over people?

However, Local Government New Zealand has already expressed concern that the proposal goes too far in “pitting potatoes against houses”.

LGNZ president and Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull told Newsroom councils were supportive of the policy intent behind the NPS, but the Government’s proposed solution was "a rather simplistic way of dealing with what’s a rather complex set of issues.”

Cull suggested protections could instead be placed into the Resource Management Act framework, already under review. However, the consultation document says that option was ruled out due to the “many years” it would take to achieve the desired outcomes.

“Whatever mechanism is put in place, there needs to be a discussion around how you’re going to resolve the conflicts and where the line is drawn as to what is highly productive land, the acuteness of the need for housing...we just think there are too many unintended consequences,” Cull said.

“Less than one percent of New Zealand is urbanised: the only reason that people are building on valuable horticultural land is because there are so many restrictions they can’t build anywhere else.”

Councils also wanted clarity on the Government’s forestry policy, due to the potential economic impact of planting trees on highly productive land that could provide more jobs through agriculture or horticulture.

ACT leader David Seymour said the Government's announcement would further restrict development at a time when a more permissive approach was sorely needed.

“Less than one percent of New Zealand is urbanised: the only reason that people are building on valuable horticultural land is because there are so many restrictions they can’t build anywhere else.”

While the horticulture sector had “a legitimate grievance” about council zoning pushing up the price of valuable sections, Seymour said new regulations would not solve the problems they faced.

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