15 Aug 2019

Condos or corn? Govt proposes protection for arable land

11:29 am on 15 August 2019

Fruit and vegetable producers say it's now or never to protect the country's most fertile land from housing developments.

Market gardens in Pukekohe, south of Auckland City.

Highly-fertile market gardens in Pukekohe, south of Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Eva Corlett

The government has proposed greater protection for arable land from being subdivided or used for urban expansion.

It's been a concern for at least 15 years, and over the last decade 200 produce growers in Auckland have closed, as more rural land has been re-zoned to keep up with housing demand.

Having taken over the produce company his father started 60 years ago, Amrat Bhana knows the productive land of Auckland well.

"I think back to my childhood memories, there was cropping in Kumeu, Albany, Waimauku, Mangere, Papakura - it's all gone," the co-manager of Hira Bhana said.

"And now it's working it's way into Pukekohe. The big thing is this soil is very elite, once it's gone it's gone forever."

Pukekohe on its own produces more than a quarter of the country's vegetables, Auckland Council figures show. On the southern outskirts of Auckland it's long been called the food bowl of New Zealand.

Land like this is disappearing. Between 1990 and 2008, 20 percent of all new urban areas was on the country's most fertile land, according to the Ministry for the Environment.

Mr Bhana said one local grower he knew, Stan Clark, was having to leave the business after decades.

"He got surrounded by development right around him. In the end he just couldn't do it, he just had to pull up sticks really. He was probably the only celery grower left in Pukekohe, and once he's gone that'll be the end of that."

Re-zoning rural land to residential - so houses can be built on it - means the value of the land increases overnight. It can then be tempting for land owners to sell to developers for a good price.

Before this there hasn't been a national policy on how councils should balance freeing up land for development, and protecting important areas, which Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said resulted in ad-hoc strategy.

"The pressure from urban growth has overrun the need for us to maintain our productive base."

So they're introducing a National Policy Statement, which falls under the Resource Management Act, to guide councils on how to balance the competing interests.

Environment Minister David Parker said the statement didn't provide absolute protection for highly-productive land. Instead it increased the importance of the land within the councils' planning and land-sue considerations, but also gave them flexibility to manage local pressures such as population growth.

"At the moment, it's quite hard for councils to resist the pressure to subdivide land where some people can make a lot of money from subdividing our best soils into lifestyle blocks or intensive housing and we want to give them a hand to get the right answers," Mr Parker said.

The deputy mayor of Auckland, Bill Cashmore, said we had enough land to do both. They've just announced 34,000 new houses in Pukekohe and nearby Drury over the next 30 years - none of which, he added, were on quality production areas.

"So we can protect rural production, we can protect quality soils, from urbanisation - we don't have to touch them."

Kylie Faulkner of the Pukekohe Vegetable Growers Association said the issue touched essentially everyone who ate vegetables. The more land lost, the more vegetables we'd have to source from overseas.

"It's not even that it's long distances - it's [wanting to know] that it's been grown in a safe and healthy way, and that labour laws and standards have been followed.

"I want to know, as a parent, for my children where their food is come from and it's been done ethically and safely, and I think all New Zealanders want the same."

The National Policy Statement isn't set in stone. It has a two-month consultation period with a number of public meetings throughout the country to discuss it before it's finalised.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs