High-value land lost for lifestyle

John Dymond2

John Dymond: “Fully one-tenth of NZ’s most productive agricultural land has already been converted to lifestyle sections."

Action is overdue to protect New Zealand’s best agricultural land from subdivision, scientist John Dymond says.

The Landcare Research senior scientist from Palmerston North has called for urgent action and national monitoring of rural land fragmentation.

He also wants a national policy statement to prioritise NZ’s best agricultural land for productive uses.

“This is one case where short-term market conditions favour outcomes that are unlikely to be in the nation’s long-term interest,” he said.

In research published recently in the journal of the Royal Society he said in some areas the rate of subdivision of high-class land was very high. Already lifestyle blocks covered 35% of Auckland’s best agricultural land.

There was no reason to expect the demand for rural subdivisions to subside but NZ’s best agricultural land was valuable, limited and a non-renewable resource, he said.

Lifestyle blocks make up 5% of NZ’s non-reserved land and 10% of all high-class land.

Lifestyle block developments had far outstripped loss of land through urbanisation in recent years, he said.

“Fully one-tenth of NZ’s most productive agricultural land has already been converted to lifestyle sections and this has increased rapidly in the last 10 years.”

Between 1990 and 2008, 25,000 hectares of land was turned into urban areas. Of this 16,000ha was in the North Island and 9000ha in the South Island.

Almost a third of this was on high-class land. Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough had 49% and 59% respectively of the new urban areas on high-class land, he said. Nelson turned high-class land into urban areas faster than other regions.

Smallholders overall did not engage in high levels of production, he said. Once subdivided, the land was generally unlikely to return to economic food production.

Three surveys in Western Bay of Plenty between 1996 and 2005 showed up to two-thirds of properties less than 4ha and up to 82% of those less than 1.5ha were not being used for productive purposes.

On only 29% of lots did production increase and these tended to be between three and 8ha in size.

Rural subdivision was effectively irreversible and many lifestyle blocks in peri-urban areas were subdivided further into smaller urban properties, Dymond said.

An average of 5800 new lifestyle blocks had been added every year since 1998 and there were now 175,000 lifestyle blocks covering 873,000ha, he said.

These potentially constrained future land productivity. 

The Resource Management Act removed the explicit protection of land for the purposes of food production, he said.