A quarter of the Waikato’s land could be covered under new laws aimed at protecting high-quality soils, fencing off the region’s growing towns and cities.
The rules have been warmly welcomed by Waikato Federated Farmers president Jacqui Hahn and Waipa mayor Jim Milchrest, but there is uncertainty over the immediate practical benefits of change and the long-term impact of the rules.
This includes how the laws affect the tension between creating affordable housing, development and expanding Hamilton’s city limits, and protecting food production on the one hand.
Areas earmarked for urban development will be excluded from the Waikato’s total land area covered by the recently released 2022 High Productivity Land National Policy Statement.
“The NPS-HPL strengthens the protection of Aotearoa’s most productive land but still allows development on highly productive land under certain conditions,” Waikato Regional Council said in a briefing.
What is happening and why?
The new rules go into effect this month.
A government notice specifically named the Waikato as an area in need of protection.
Environment Minister David Parker said the rules would “significantly improve how we protect highly productive land from appropriate allocation, use and development”.
If a developer wants to build on highly productive land – Class 1, 2 or 3 – it must pass certain special tests or be deemed “unsuitable”.
How big a deal is it for Hamilton and Waikato?
Waikato Regional Council figures show that less than a quarter of land in the area is in sections 1-3, including large areas around Hamilton, and is looking to expand into the neighboring Waikato district and Waipa.
The region covers approximately 25,000km². A further 1.9% is Class 1 (good multi-use land), 11.2% Class 2 and 11% Class 3 (both suitable for cereal crops and horticulture). With a total of 24.1%, the units covered more than 6000km².
The new laws raise questions about whether protections for productive soils could limit housing development and increase inflation, stifle growth and prevent urban sprawl, which could reduce areas suitable for growing.
However, the Waikato sky that no one is crying about is immediately causing a big problem in terms of the rules.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Waikato Federated Farmers president Jaqui Hahn said.
A lot of land is being lost under cities.
Much of Waikato’s urban areas were felt to be spreading over high levels of soil.
Waipa Mayor Jim Milchurst, who owns most of the borough’s best soil, said: “Waipa has been trying to get this kind of protection for over 40 years that I’ve been with the council.”
However, he agreed with “common sense” controls to continue urban expansion.
“We don’t want it to be limited like that. [much] The land becomes unavailable and unbuyable.
The view of specialists
Tracy May, the state council’s director of science, policy and information, said the council already had policies in place to protect high-quality soils, but the new rules would “affect some changes and discussions” about the way forward.
“It really adds to the tension in the suburbs,” May said of discussions about development in the suburbs.
However, she does not expect the laws to significantly limit the amount of land available for housing at this time or cause other major problems.
“I don’t see it as a frenemy. I see it as something that points us in the right direction to have the right conversations.”
May told the council it would not cost much to cover the last places under the new rules by October 2025.
She said taking away land already earmarked for urban development would reduce the total Waikato Division 1-3 areas covered by the NPS-HPL.
City of Hamilton planning manager Mark Davey felt the new rules were a matter of “back to the future”.
The old Town and Country Planning Act had clear protections for the best soil, but the current Resource Management Act has given responsibility for setting policy to regional councils. Dewey opted for a return to a national approach.
With Hamilton looking to expand into the Waikato and Waipa districts and the city being surrounded by class 1-3 soil, “it’s bound to be an issue for us,” Davie said.
But he added, “It’s not as black and white as that.”
The new regulations will force the city to look at expansion or to further consolidate within the current boundaries.
As for whether this could serve to drive up house prices or stifle growth, Davie said, “There are certainly some policies that are pulling in opposite directions,” citing requirements to provide for larger homes and protect soil.
But Lugtons Real Estate director and developer David Lugton felt the rules probably wouldn’t affect the availability of subdivision land in Hamilton and nearby.
“I don’t see a lot of land being developed in and around the city.”
More political views
Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate said she felt the new laws would not have a major impact on supporting house prices or limiting development in the city in the short term, given the amount of land available for expansion and infill in various areas.
“New Zealand has to find the balance…it’s about smart growth,” she said of the tension between protecting the best soil and having enough land for development.
Deputy Geoff Taylor, who supports the development of more greenfield homes, said there was plenty of land for up to 40,000 homes in places like Peacocke and Rotokauri and he did not expect the NPS-HPL to limit development.
“Fortunately, not in the short term. In the long term, we may want to bring in other land areas.”
Because Hamilton is a large metropolitan area with relatively small boundaries, “these types of NPS can be really useless,” he said.
“The beauty of more greenfields is that you can build high-strength instead of building as a clip-on to existing stock.”
The growing Waikato district mayor Alan Sanson said there was a conflict between soil conservation and many homes near Tukau.
The new NPS-HPL can “make it even harder” when it comes to housing.
“It creates some more problems for us.”