Environment Minister David Parker moved yesterday to protect some of the country’s most productive soils from housing.
And his move could mean the end of MacMansion-type lifestyle subdivisions in areas like Karaka or Pukekohe or the Taieri Plains.
But his proposal is also a key component of his bigger ambitions to see New Zealand reduce its dependence on intensive dairying and move towards more intensive high-value horticulture.
He got immediate support for his proposal yesterday from both Horticulture New Zealand and Federated Farmers.
The move was sparked by a report —“Our Land 2018” — prepared by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand.
Overall the report found that there had been a ten percent increase in the total size of towns and cities (between 1996 and 2012) while between 2002 and 2016 there had been a seven per cent decrease in the area of land in agricultural production.
Parker said the report confirmed the need for more action to improve land management.
So he has asked officials to work on a National Policy Statement (NPS) for Versatile Land and High-Class Soils.
National Policy Standards “trump” district plans and become, in effect, planning documents themselves.
“I was particularly troubled by how much of our urban growth is occurring in our irreplaceable highly productive land,” he said.
“ Even in a country as lucky as New Zealand we only have limited quantities of these high-class soils.”
He particularly singled out prime market gardening land around Pukekohe, as Auckland expands, as well as the impact of lifestyle blocks on our most productive land.
“Once the land goes into lifestyle blocks it is hard to farm for horticulture efficiently, and some of the people who move in to the areas are opposed to their neighbours who are continuing with their horticultural practices, whether it is air guns to scare off birds or truck movements or fertiliser and herbicides and pesticides” he told POLITIK.
Parker expects that by the end of the year he will have a draft NPS ready for consultation.
He said that he had support from both Councils and the horticultural industry.
But he sees the move – to protect rich horticultural soils – as part of a bigger plan.
“As technology strips out some of the costs through more mechanisation in the field you would expect that we will earn more and more from our horticulture and we ought not to be covering this land with houses.”
Parker believes that as horticulture becomes more valuable, we will see land that has been converted to dairying come back to horticulture.
“I think that is going to happen in quite a few places round New Zealand,” he said.
“It will happen in parts of Central Otago and South Canterbury.”
Horticulture New Zealand chief executive Mike Chapman Auckland, said his organisation had been talking to the Government about the issue.
“We believe the valuable growing soils – which are often termed elite soils – should be protected by central Government policy,” he said.
“We can’t afford to keep losing these soils if we want to continue feeding New Zealand their favourite fruits and vegetables.”
Federated Farmers endorsed the report that Parker is basing his Policy Standard on.
“We know soils are precious. said their environment spokesperson Chris Allen.
“Seeing them covered with tarseal and concrete is something we as significant custodians of land get frustrated by.”
However, the Feds were critical of the lack of research funding for agriculture which meant much of the data in the report was out of date saying it had not been updated since a 2015 report which used 2012 data.
“If we are serious about monitoring land use and its quality, we need to get our act together and fund the science appropriately,” said Allen.
The Environmental Defence Society CEO Gary Taylor said that though the report acknowledged some serious data gaps, it was s otherwise a useful, insightful and “frankly worrying analysis that shows mostly declining trends.”
Taylor focussed on other areas as well as the rich Pukekohe soils.
“The report reveals that between 1996 and 2012 we lost 31,000ha of tussock grassland – but we know that figure has dramatically increased since 2012,” he said.
“.Similarly, it shows that large areas of indigenous shrubland, native forests and wetlands continue to diminish in spite of laws to protect them.
“What next? We can expect the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to review the report and recommend responses. But mostly it reinforces the need for urgent action and provides irrefutable statistical support for the Government to push hard for big changes in the way we manage land.
“We consider it has a powerful and clear mandate from the electorate to do that.
“That means a suite of changes must be pushed forward including:
• a major overhaul of the Resource Management Act
• much better administration by regional councils
• deployment of a National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity
• strengthening the NPS Freshwater Management
• reviewing the National Environmental Standard on Plantation Forestry preparing a proper plan for the Billion trees
• investing more in pest and weed management
• more funding for DOC’s core functions
• reducing stocking rates especially in dairying
• better urban planning.
“It’s what this report leads to that’s important. It should be possible in 2018 to stop further decline in our natural environment and kick-start restoration of much of what’s been lost,” Taylor said.