The Hearings Committee of the Hastings Council once again contends with the issue of best use of the District’s valuable agricultural land. This time in the context of an application to build a retirement village on the outskirts of Havelock North.

I have no brief for or against the proposal. The village proposed by developer John O’Sullivan seems to reflect the best “state of the art” thinking regarding desirable features and amenities for housing for the elderly. But design is not, of course, the issue … the issue is location and need.

The HDC Committee seems to hopscotch all over the map on the crucial issue of location (i.e., land use), instead of making decisions about the use of our valuable land resource consistently within some strategic framework …

  • They favor more intense development at the Bridge Pa golf course (only to be overruled by the Environment Court).
  • But they block conversion of orchard land off Te Aute Road into lifestyle blocks.
  • At the same time, they champion conversion of 30 hectares of Heretaunga Plains land into a sports complex (and wait with fingers crossed for a favorable decision by independent hearings officers).
  • And now they sit in judgment of the proposed conversion of a 18 hectare block of orchard land into a retirement village.

We might as well just go to a coin toss, and spare all parties a lot of time, torture and money!

The Committee hears conflicting submissions on matters that might be beyond dispute if the HDC took the trouble to fashion — and then faithfully implement — a coherent strategy for allocating the use of its precious land.

For example, why isn’t there a definitive inventory of plains land, indicating on sound empirical grounds which land is most productive for agricultural use … and which is less so? In three of the illustrations above, opposing parties have made contrary claims about the farming viability of the lands involved. Surely there must be an indisputable way to establish the true productive capacity of our entire land resource once and for all.

For example, why isn’t there a definitive projection of the District’s housing needs, based upon consensus projections of demographic trends? Will our population grow or decline, and which age segments will go which direction? Does Hastings need more housing for retirees, or young families? More upscale single family dwellings, or townhouses and apartments? More rentals, or more homes for purchase? Again, why must we re-debate the basic facts of our demographic profile with every resource consent or plan change?

And given the answers to the first two questions, where then is the optimal placement of any required housing (or other infrastructure)? Where can developers expect to hear a loud and uncompromising NO! at the outset, and where a YES?

The enemy of all advocates of competing land uses is uncertainty. HDC desperately needs a comprehensive land use strategy and plan to reduce that uncertainty.

Until there is one, because land is essentially impossible to recover once built upon, there should be a flat moratorium on converting plains land from agriculture to any other use. Ad hoc decision-making on such conversions must be suspended.

To developers, this is surely a draconian proposal. But the land, if indeed productive, is simply too valuable to be sacrificed without a forward-looking plan. Once (and if) new housing needs have been objectively identified by local government (not developers), then hard choices must be made. The least productive land, objectively identified by local government (not developers), can be allocated for development.

Maybe the retirement village proposed by John O’Sullivan would be idyllic … brilliantly meeting the needs of both its residents and the broader community. But maybe it’s the ideal village in the wrong location. Maybe we don’t need it in the first place.

Or maybe Mr. O’Sullivan will simply be the victim of bad political timing … “We just threw 30 hectares to the sports park, we can’t possibly toss another 18 hectares to a housing development.”

This just seems to be one more case where the HDC — this time through its Hearings Committee — is cobbling together the rules while the game is being played. I say, call a time out, hear from all the stakeholders, validate (or debunk) underlying assumptions about housing needs and land quality, set the rules, and only then resume the game.


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  1. Good one – Tom, once you get HDC to take the step perhaps others will follow. There is certainly a need for cogent planning but as "you can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink" perhaps we have to get behind someone with vision and elect him/her – Tom for Mayor!?

  2. I agree with most of what was said here and in particular the need for proper definition of the plains soils resource before attempting to protect it (I own 8 hectares of it).

    You may be interested to know that Flaxmere was sited on the identified least productive/ valuable plains land (the Gimblett gravels appellation). This land became the most valuable by far plains land for wine grapes.

    The point: what is ‘productive’ can ebb and flow a bit – there is really no once and for all land status … what land might be good for in the future is not necessarily foreseeable. There may be crops not trialed in NZ, foods not yet in vogue or productive systems not yet invented. These considerations will impact on food productive land prioritisation in the future.

    All land is ‘productive’ by the way, be it socially or economically for factories, housing, recreation, timber trees or carbon credits, scrub, etc. With regards to the plains we are talking food production and the broader economic and social outcomes for Hawke’s Bay and NZ.

    On the plains, the land resource to the best of my knowledge is not well defined. From my recent Plan Change 46 submission:

    I may be in error but has valuation roll/ public record (HBRC) attainable information been assembled and well-analysed (and published by HDC)? This would include the Plains land stock and use trends facts of:

    – total Plains soils resource extent net of streams and rivers in hectares (ideally by soil type/ qualities)

    – total soils taken up by rail corridors and road infrastructure

    – total consumed by community and urban land uses (Hastings City etc)

    – total usurped by commercial and industrial uses of land (Whakatu etc)

    – net of above uses, Plains Rural Zone productive land area available (total available soils resource ideally by collated soil type per HBRC maps and/or valuation roll detail)

    – average Plains Zone holding/ title area (and perhaps also by common ownership entity for the major players)

    – extent of soils resource impacted by buildings (residential and other extractable per valuation roll data), internal access and storage areas (sampling ratios estimated)

    – per the above productive soils (hectares and percentage) land currently lost to the Plains

    – trends per the gleaned land use statics (rates of loss hectares and percentage and ideally by soil type)

    Without this kind information (even if not soil types differentiated), it is not really possible to plan properly, well and intelligently for the Plains. Rules formed or changes made without this information are by definition not well-based and that is not good enough. The Heretaunga Plains soils resource is far too important.

    Pat Turley

  3. As Chairman of the Land Protection Society I am pleased to see the response to your comment Tom.

    We do have facts and we need to have proper recognition of this valuable resource.Only 4% of NZ's land is of Class 1&2 soils and is flat. Is that a finite resource or what?

    HDC just can't grasp the importance.I have estimated there is a further 250ha that could be lost very soon.

    Some areas such as Twyford and Pakowhai with the top soils just should not be used for industrial and commercial.

    The fight continues.

  4. Go Tom!!!!! I love this stuff!!!

    There are two other issues connected with this retirement village that need airing.

    1. Where is a coherent plan by local councils to control developers' ideas of acceptable housing? Do we want this hideous American model? [Compare old Havelock North to new.] Why should developers get all the say about how our environment develops just because they meet council requirements on drainage and roading?

    2. Don't automatically accept that private retirement villages are the B all and End all of the elderlies problems. The truth is that they have no option often and private retirement villages use the excuse that they are responsible to their shareholders to fleece their residents. Take a closer look at what residents have to sign away before they can buy in there.


  5. HDC Hearings Committee Chairman Mick Lester has correctly challenged my imprecision in this post.

    Two of the examples I cite, the HB Golf Club (which I referred to as the Bridge Pa golf course) and the sports park are instances where the Council as a whole, not its Hearings Committee, have taken a position on appropriate land use.

    In the first instance, it is a hearings commissioner who was overturned by the Environment Court (with the Council supporting the position that was overturned). In the case of the sports park, again it is the Council's position that is before the independent commissioners.

    In all fairness, my accusation of "hopscotching" on location issues should be directed at the Council as a whole, not the Hearings Committee.

    So I stand corrected on the target of my criticism, but stand firmly by its substance.


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