The new Natural and Built Environment Act promises to embed better protection for New Zealand’s fresh fruit and produce supplies in future land use decisions.
Passed in the pre-election run-up before Parliament shuts, the Act undertakes to prioritise protection of the natural environment for present and future generations, better housing development within environmental limits, better preparation for climate change adaptation and more recognition of mātauranga Māori.
It has been welcomed by the horticultural sector as a huge step in recognising the value of food grown on high-value soils in New Zealand. It recognises that high-value land cannot be subject to inappropriate development and aims to ensure land-based production is protected on those soils.
Horticulture NZ policy and strategy manager Michelle Sands said the Act has done a good job of recognising the value of land classes 1-3, in having a specific outcomes associated with its use, namely the continuation of food production.
The Act has been criticised by Federated Farmers for what it called a long list of vague and uncertain terms likely to lead to endless and expensive litigation.
Sands acknowledged the Act does not distinguish a clear hierarchy between its different goals.
“But that would eventuate at the next level of policy. Over time you will see how these outcomes will be differentiated for different regions, which are not provided for in the Act at the moment.”
But the Act’s particular and specific reference to national planning having to ensure a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables be available is heartening, she said.
“Alongside having housing, water and a clean environment, we do need to have a reliable food supply. It’s about recognising that due to our isolation the supply ensures we are resilient.”
She said the Natural and Built Environment Act (NBA) also provides a framework to try to rein in a Resource Management Act (RMA) that has multiple plans being generated by regional and local councils.
“Councils are in this constant planning cycle. This will simplify that. It is extremely onerous for any organisation involved at present.”
For growers and orchardists, she said, fewer plans and a simplified approach will help those who may have properties in multiple council areas, something not uncommon in market gardening.
“And one of the things we struggle with in the RMA is cumulative effect – that is, how a resource like water is managed once it has been fully allocated.
“The new Act is not explicit on how such decisions are made, but it does provide a framework for supporting decisions, something we are really stuck around with the RMA at the moment.”
The NBA is supported by the Spatial Planning Act, which aims to co-ordinate decisions made under relevant legislation to ensure they meet long-term regional spatial strategy.
The Acts will play a big role in determining how vulnerable but productive flood plain regions throughout NZ are managed.
“There is a tendency to think flood protection only applies to towns.
“I think we need to challenge that view and think about productive land too and what sort of infrastructure investment is needed to keep it productive, rather than simply abandon it because of a risk that exists,” Sands said.
“The Act gives direction on how to understand risk, and how to manage it.”
With much of the east coast still picking up the pieces from Cyclone Gabrielle, Sands said she suspects the RMA’s rules will apply in the short term, but the NBA will likely increasingly come into play after inevitable future events.
“It does signal a more direct approach to climate change and increasing risk.”
While not as revolutionary as the RMA was when it kicked off over 30 years ago, Sands said, there will still be much that needs defining by the courts.