The Heretaunga Plains, and the water beneath them, form the basis for a significant chunk of the Hawke’s Bay economy. Our climate, old river beds and former swamps provide rich growing conditions which would be hard to replicate anywhere in the world. The quality varies, but these flat soils cover around 30,000 hectares. At the current rate of urban expansion, we will use up around 1% of this land in the next 100 years.
I see the managing of this resource as the most significant challenge facing the Hastings District Council, Napier City Council and the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council. It’s more complex than managing our water resources, because unlike water, people own the land they live and work on. They have title to it and they use it how they see fit.
With ownership comes a right of say, and a complicated set of issues around its value.
You don’t have to think back too far to remember various attempts to manage the conflicting land use issues on the plains. The Hawke’s Bay County Council fought to protect our soil resource at all costs. To subdivide, you had to prove you could make a living of the subdivided land. This involved consultants in preparation of plans to prove subdivision was economically viable. Some succeeded, some failed. Most of the planned uses only lasted for a year or two and the land was then essentially a lifestyle block.
The Hastings City Council developed and expanded Flaxmere (with support of the Hawke’s Bay County Council) because it made sense for a dormitory suburb to be located on poor soils. In fact, the soils to the west of Flaxmere were so poor they barely supported grass growth. With the advent of viticulture, this same land can produce some of the best red wine in the world, branded as Gimblett Gravels. Quite simply, the western part of Flaxmere was poorly planned on soils which, in retrospect, can extract significant value for our region.
The Hastings District combined the former plans of Hastings City Council, Havelock North Borough Council and Hawke’s Bay County Council and put all the productive flat land together in a planning area referred to as the Plains Zone. This includes all the Heretaunga Plains as well as parts of the Dartmoor Valley, Puketapu, Te Hauke and coastal areas, such as the areas surrounding Haumoana and Te Awanga. Napier City on the other hand controls the fertile land around Meeanee and Awatoto.
The Heretaunga Growth Strategy, currently being developed by Hastings, Napier and HB Regional Councils, is the first regional attempt to work out how we manage all the issues in a sustainable and integrated way. We have two cities twenty minutes apart surrounded by some of the best land in the world. How we manage this land is vitally important to our future.
The region also needs to actively grow our population. It is no secret our population is ageing and this needs to be offset by a positive and reasoned strategy to hold onto our existing residents and attract new migrants. It’s vital we allow for growth – developing housing, roads, water and infrastructure for business.
Napier is a seaside city that can accommodate growth via high density apartment living on attractive locations overlooking the sea and via new less fertile land lifted in the 1931 earthquake.
Hastings, on the other hand, is essentially a beautiful market town built on an old swamp with a railway line establishing its position. It provides the business hub for the region and services thriving agricultural and horticultural sectors. There is little demand for high density residential housing, with the exception of Havelock North. Surrounding these two cities are proud communities such as Clive, Haumoana, Te Awanga, and Bayview.
What are the challenges?
1. Community perceptions have changed. There is now a significant community interest in landscape values. The less productive hills around the plains are valued for their landscapes and it’s now more difficult to build there. So, if we want to protect the fertile land on the plains and the landscape values of the hills, the options for development are limited.
2. The land ownership is fragmented, with hundreds of small titles too small for traditional horticultural use. They might be used for horticulture currently, but can easily be converted into lifestyle blocks.
3. Primary production is full of economic uncertainty. Boom-or-bust patterns are common. In reality most producers rely on a combination of equity growth in their land to offset modest cash surpluses from growing produce. Adverse climatic and economic events often result in requests from growers to subdivide off low-priority assets, like houses, in an effort to retain the income generating capacity of their core business.
4. Industry requirements keep changing. The apple industry required packhouses on orchards less than fifteen years ago. Now most packing facilities have been centralised. Some of this centralisation has occurred on industrial land, while some has occurred on the good quality plains-zoned land. The wine industry required vertical integration from growing to sales. This allows for wineries and restaurants to be built where the grapes are grown.
5. Any residential, commercial or industrial zonings must make sense from an infrastructure perspective. Generally, we have plenty of clean water. We have geographic challenges in stormwater disposal in Napier, and into the catchments of the Karamu Stream. Wastewater reticulation is very expensive and there are significant economies of scale in clustering housing. It is possible to engineer anything from single home infrastructure packages to multimillion-dollar schemes, but the economic costs of these must make sense.
6. Climate Change requires a new approach to planning around coastlines and waterways.
A lot of the debate around the Sports Park, the Havelock North retirement village, the Bunnings development in Hastings and the various golf course developments straddle all of these issues. In the many discussions I have had on these issues, I ask the same question: “What is your solution?”
Do we draw a line in the sand? Ban certain activities in certain areas? Shift residential development to lower-value land kilometres away from existing infrastructure? Only allow growth on poor quality soils? Shift all residential growth to Havelock North, Clive or Bayview?
The response is the same. Few people have an answer.
We already have a successful Regional Transport Plan. The Heretaunga Plains Urban Growth Strategy is our first regional attempt to develop a plan to address land use issues regionally. My personal aim is to collectively work towards a single District Plan that is well thought out, sustainable and agreed.
Getting there will involve plenty of interaction and meaningful consultation with key players and the community. There has never been a better opportunity to sort these issues – our only constraint is what we currently know. We have a chance to significantly influence the shape of the Heretaunga Plains for the next 50 years.
It is our future and your chance.