Is the 10 acre block 'the worst environmental crime being committed in NZ?' Hamish Hutton explains the issue and offers a solution

Is the 10 acre block 'the worst environmental crime being committed in NZ?' Hamish Hutton explains the issue and offers a solution

By Hamish Hutton*

Every few days this summer Canterbury's fire fighters have put their lives on the line to protect us from what often seems like an unstoppable menace, grass fires.

Every time I hear how hard these brave people are being pushed I get angry with the planners in our local councils who’s decisions are making this situation graver every year.

Do not believe that the hot, dry, windy weather is the sole cause of the Canterbury plains’ increasingly common grass fires.

Canterbury has always had hot dry summers but these fires appear to get more common.

Listening to the fire reports it is clear that a significant factor is the proliferation of large clusters of, to varying degrees, un-grazed 10 acre lifestyle blocks that, by this time of year, are a vast store of highly combustible fuel, peppered with a few nice houses.

Typically 10 acre (4 ha) blocks are purchased by urban people who often know relatively little about farming and don’t have a lot of time to invest in it.

Their dream of running a small farm quickly turns into an uneconomic nightmare of trying to manage stock without the proper facilities.

It is common for them to simply shut the gates and do nothing with some of their paddocks for several years. I can testify to the accuracy of this description because my father and I rent many of these blocks back from their owners for very disjointed and marginally economic extensions of our own farming operation.

When we take these sections on we always discover the same thing. The grass has not been managed, renewed or grazed in several years, the stock water system is non-functioning. The Fences and gates are broken. The house and garden sit often in a forest of long tinder dry grass, broom and weeds. There are no functioning sheep or cattle yards, loading ramps etc ... The land simply cannot be intensively grazed because there is no infrastructure to handle stock. Cropping is out of the question due to the paddock sizes and lack of machinery.

Aside from the permanent removal of once productive farmland from our economy, this is a bad scenario for fire fighters.

Yet our council, the Hurunui, have studiously enforced this on the countryside for years. Their rationale appears to be, if the section sizes were lowered, even more people would buy rural residential sections and too much farm land would be consumed.

The problem with their logic is that, as this is the only option for rural residential living, a lot of these 10 acre (4 ha) sections sell every year. They don’t cost a lot, relative to town sections.

In the past, the well managed farmland of Canterbury would simply not have these acres of standing straw in the late summer. That grass would all have been grazed or taken for hay in the spring. Grass kept short does not go to seed, become dormant and turn to straw, it remains low to the ground, green and productive throughout even quite dry seasons.

There will always be a market comprised of non-farming folk who wish to live in a rural environment. In fact that market will continue to grow with our national population.

I have long argued with the council that this demand would be more rationally met with smaller sections.

Maybe 1 hectare (still 10 times larger than a quarter hectare town section). So the same number of sales would consume ¼ the area of land, and on average be much better managed as large gardens with a couple of small paddocks.

There will always be farmers retiring, in debt or facing succession issues who will want to meet the growing demand for rural residential sections.

There is nothing morally wrong with them taking this step, although the council staff seem to feel differently. In most parts of the world this scenario results in idyllic hamlets of houses on small sections, with rural views, at the margins of productive farmland.

But not in Canterbury.

Here, by council design, any rural residential development results in sprawling 10 acre blocks consuming increasingly large tracts of land - typically the best land, close to our towns and infrastructure. The great majority of those incoming rural residents would be more than happy with a one hectare section, or even a two hectare section. That would be large enough for some horses or sheep but small enough for them to mow and maintain between the kids sporting engagements.

However, in their wisdom, several councils view the development of smaller sections by farmers to meet that demand as something very negative to be resisted at all costs.

They rigidly apply plans that stipulate 4 hectare sections as the only option.

Thus, whole farms are being slowly consumed.

This does not, in fact, slow the sale of rural sections all that much. As you can see from the Canterbury Plains and other parts of the country, there are hundreds of new sections sold each year. My own father has found it necessary for various requirements to sell three ten acre sections on which no economic activity now takes place, no future jobs created.

It is hard to come by accurate figures on the development of 4 hectare blocks nationally, but it is certainly in the hundreds. If it were just 100 new blocks per annum New Zealand would be losing 400 hectares of farm land every year -  4,000 hectares every decade.

All this policy is achieving is the retirement, by the consistent demand for rural lifestyle sections, of the maximum area of previously well managed NZ farmland into economically dormant lifestyle grasslands.

If you listen carefully to the reports on the recent fires you will hear the same two words repeated “lifestyle blocks”. The access for fire trucks is apparently a nightmare.

One South Island mayor told me that it was his opinion that “the 10 acre block is the worst environmental crime being committed in New Zealand”.

So why haven't the various Mayors acted?

They try to raise the issue, but the planning staff in the councils have been very quick to block any steps outside of the sacred RMA and “district plan”.  I have witnessed this first hand in several meetings. Not only are these people squandering our nation’s farm land by hundreds of hectares annually, but I would argue they are also putting lives at risk in future grass fires.

So what can be done about this?

It’s pretty simple lower the section sizes for rural subdivision across Canterbury, at least, to 1 hectare.

This would both meet the demand and instantly stop the march of development across the plains. All of those existing 4 hectare blocks could be subdivided into new sections - meeting the need for new housing land for at least a few years.

It is a very simple equation: the smaller the average lifestyle section, the greater the proportion of that rural residential land that will be in a well mown, maintained state, plated in trees, irrigated garden, or well grazed pony paddocks. The larger the average lifestyle section the greater the proportion of rural residential land that will be in unmanaged, over grown, tinder-dry grass.

When you consider farm land as the finite source of our economic wealth in NZ, the march of the 10 acre block cannot go on indefinitely.

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Hamish Hutton co-owns a farming operation with his father at Amberley, in Hurunui district.

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35 Comments

While you may be correct regarding the long grass I suspect it may be the ultimate in hyprocacy for farmers (or their hangers-on) to be accusing anyone of commiting environmental crime. If you want to find environmental damage then look just a little beyond the nearest farm gate and you'll probably find plenty. The state of our rivers and streams are a prime example.

muzzer you have no clue about what you're talking about.  stop misinforming people.

Of course he does, he knows the facts, which are that farming is polluting New Zealands waterways. Federated Farmers admit it themselves. Farmers are subsidised for wrecking the country.

Being a Amberley townie my untrained eye does not see the mass irrigation/dairy conversions around here that has many environmentalists concerned. It really is a dry a bugger here.

I think we can take Hamishs concerns at face value without going straight to the usual sterotypes.

Hamishs good article. Well done.

Thats strange because its not that big a drive to Culverdon, and I think there is also large Forestry to Dairy conversions going on.

From what I can make out and I am no expert. There is a large irrigation scheme which takes water from the Hurunui river being started, which explains the dairy conversions around Culberson. That scheme does not extend as far down as Amberley. As far as I can see the type of farming around Amberley is quite traditional sheep farming. Of course between Amberley and Culverdon there is also the Waipara wine valley in the lee of Teviot hills.

SUbsidised from where?  Fonterra is subsidised by farming businesses, farming businesses in NZ are not subsidised in any way.

Fed farmers are a media group catering to whoever wants to wave a microphone at them, they did some good work in the past but over commercialised themselves and lost focus.  Accurate they are not...Quisling, many of their people, are.

He don't have the facts.  And neither do you.

There are some farmers who operate poorly, just as there are other humans who also break the rules of what they are supposed to do.  There are judges who cheat on their expense claims, bullying doctors and councillors, and even police who routinely break the law and violate peoples' rights.  Even "investigative" journalists and media who just report what is off the wire.  But we don't label the whole group by the few who deliberately fail.

Cowboy this is the first of your many comments I actually agree with. Well done. Especially your last paragraph. I have lived on three acres for nineteen years and currently have 8 sheep keeping it tidy. I would not shift into town for quids. No direct neighbours and the ability to have a fire when conditions permit is invaluable. I hope to never leave.

Thanks for the article Hamish and a good point about the grass. I found it interesting and I agree with the bizarreness of encouraging 4 ha+ lifestyle blocks to both the detriment of farming and also people wanting a bit more space than an urban section that a 1 hectare plot would otherwise adequately satisfy.
Why aren't our land markets more flexible and why do our councils insist on imposing these top down restrictions? Are they reflective of what people want? Too much bureaucratic deadwood? Maybe it's time we reviewed our councils/govt and did a bit of pruning?

great questions..Noprogram...    Why arent our land mkts more flexibe..??  I'm guessing a Councils first love ..is to regulate and control..??

Some I think do a better job of planning in this regard. Palmy North recently reviewed their rural-residential policies and increased the minimum lot size for sub-division (i.e., increased from the previous 4ha minimum) in the productive parts of our remaining rural zone (re-named it Rural Producer).
 
But it also recognised the need for smaller rural-residential lot sizes as well.
 
Hence they defined four types of rural-residential needs and subsequently zoned appropriate targeted areas:
 
Category A: Rural Producer
Category B: Satellite Rural Residential
Category C: Integrated Development
Category D: Existing Rural Residential Areas
 
http://www.pncc.govt.nz/media/1796891/rural_residential_land_use_strateg...

Hamish there is a report out saying there is 175,000 lifestyle blocks in NZ. So the situation may be even worse than your figures show.

Google lifestyle blocks number in NZ and you should find it.

@cowboy: I have no idea huh? I lived on a farm for many years, and in doing I helped to damage the environment. And we were at the environmental friendly end of the curve of the so don't tell me I have no idea.
Regarding farmers not being subsidised in any way, what do you call it when one group pollutes and the whole pay to clean up the mess? That a subsidy to doing business, and but one example. So do me a favor and stop misinforming people ;-)

I gotta say the title of this article and it's context re fire is pretty absurd.  Sure lifestyle pptys may have long grass at times, but a few hectares of burnt grass does not compare with the potential of 1000's of hectares of tinder dry pine forest in the country - and I've yet to see a forest manger mowing the grass in these.
Lifestyle blocks are a disaster - but not for fire safety reasons.  Fly the Waikato and you'll see huge sprawls of McMansions and associated watered lawns - all so they can clip and waste the grass on their ride on mowers.  These well connected and wealthy owners are just sitting and waiting for their friends in council to change the rules so they can cut em up for the big tax free gains.
Fires are not the issue here. 

It betrays farmers total lack of ecological knowledge for them to decry as an 'environmental crime' the consequences of allowing a paddock to begin to revert back to its original state - ie allowing natural processes to convert a grass monoculture (with its restricted species, frequent application of agrichemicals etc) into the increasingly species diverse weed wilderness that he so dislikes.
People seem to forget that 99% of all farmland represents an environment that has already been massively degraded from its original state (bush cleared, swamp drained etc). How can it be otherwise when the goal is to produce a monoculture and remove competing species? Thats what farming has always been about since the day agriculture started, so to hear farmers start to use the 'environment' meme to moan about unused paddocks is frankly laughable.

It is otherwise because of stewardship, only an "ecologist" would expect a white post to stay white when left on it's own.
  And the word is developed not degraded....although I wouldn't expect someone living in a concrete, tar and paint jungle to understand the difference.  Produced anything lately, Whiner?
 

I rest my case. Totally clueless about ecology. 'Stewardship'. LOL.
 

Hamish makes the point very well.
"..........It is a very simple equation: the smaller the average lifestyle section, the greater the proportion of that rural residential land that will be in a well mown, maintained state, plated in trees, irrigated garden, or well grazed pony paddocks. The larger the average lifestyle section the greater the proportion of rural residential land that will be in unmanaged, over grown, tinder-dry grass......."
As the owner of two very beautiful and very very dry hectares (5 acres) on the bank of the Kawarau I can only agree.   Many people who seek the rural life would be very happy with a quarter acre section in that rural environment.  But instead are forced to buy a large block under the current planning rules.   
 
 

This is a good question and deserves examination.
We have lived on a lifestyle block and very nuch enjoyed the rural outlook however it required a lot of work.  There are some people who manage their blocks well and make a positive ecconomic contribution eg small forestry blocks, horticulture and similar.  A lot of the others do very little in the way of farming the land.  A few may landscape it very well and for the others, it is just a bit of poorly tended land arround their house.  For a lot I suspect that it is nothing more than land banking. 
I believe that we need to be far more restrictive with the breaking up of productive land into lifestyle blocks.  It seems rediculous to see their proliferation on the outskirts of Auckland while they are going on about urban sprall.  I have noticed arround Italy and other parts of Europe that there are small groups of houses, not even village sized, with normal sized sections.  Are these not a better and more efficient model for providing a rural lifestyle and outlook without all the work and problems outlined in this article, while providing sufficient open land to absorb the resultant septic tank leachate.
If we must have lifestyle blocks then I believe that at the outset the land should be pre-planned for subdivision down to standard residential sections with nothing larger than say 2000 m2 for the original dwelling.  Then in time services can be supplied rationally and the land broken up in a way that is well planed out.

Important article! I have long been aware that the current zoning regulations promote rather than help urban sprawl, because of the proliferation of lifestyle blocks. I was unaware of the fire issue. As the author correctly notes, many (if not most) don't actually want the full 10 acres, but it's the only option for more space at an affordable price. How can we get councils to change their wrong-headed ways on this? Any chance of help from the government?

Good article, especially in drought prone areas. The 10 acre block is a death sentence block for most unless you have a friendly farmer to graze/maintain it for you, or have a rural management background. You can easily spend  at least one full day every weekend spraying, watering, fencing, moving stock just to keep on top of it. I suggest most would rather be doing something recreational.

Many would call such work recreational Averageman and healthy recreation to boot. Personally I enjoy fencing and splitting wood,even getting rid of fly strike problems as it is helping my lawn mowers to survive. Prior to christmas and even into the new year and before dry conditions my son and nephew enjoyed many a beer around a fire. Beats neighbours and their associated noise. I was in an office for 30 years and always found the land a good way to relax after a hard days work.

The biggest problem with the comments so far is that you are all assuming that all lifestyle blocks are created equal - ie are from formerly productive flat farmland, and thus are taken out of productive use to NZ's economy. Plus, that all are inhabited by former townies with not a clue about what they are doing.
 
Ours is 5.3ha. Its been in the family since the 1960s. It has never been productive, even though if you go back about 100yrs before it was broken off, it was part of a large farm on the outskirts of Dunedin. In places it's too steep to take a tractor over, we have regenerated teatree, we constantly spray the gorse and other weeds that crop up (backpack sprayer) - its an endless battle given one townie neighbour loves their thistles and gorse. We love it. Our sloping land faces south and hugs a gully. We run sheep for our own meat, we can't make hay, we're as 'productive' as we can be given the poor sandy/clay soils that pug in winter, but can grow 'grasses' in summer. Yes, in places a proper farmer would say its overgrown....plese tell me how to make sheep eat pasture they refuse to? The only way I've found is to fence paddocks into postage stamp size which then get crushed down through being laid on - they still don't eat it. We don't own a mower - thats what the sheep do around our old 100yr old house (its as far from a McMansion as you can get and still be called a house) - lawn is just greener pasture as far as I'm concerned (very handy during lambing for keeping an eye on a firsttime mum). We don't regard ourselves as a lifestyle block, we're not townies who moved to the country for a quiet life. We aren't taking any prouctive land out of economic service, but we can  grow our own meat and various fruits, and take bets on when townie neighbours will move on (the shortest time was 4mths). We have a great relationship with the proper commercial farmer that we border on one side, probably as we realise that we could impact her more than she would impact us. For instance, she knows she can happily lamb twinning ewes up behind us knowing that we won't bother her ewes - we stay away from the fenceline in spring, we don't chainsaw and we stop shooting bunnies unitl lambing is well and truly over: its her business, its when she makes her money, why would I want to f**k it up?
 
So yes, I agree with all your comments so far that some (if not the majority) of blocks shouldn't have been formed, but for gods sake don't label us all with a clueless- townie brush. We love our lifestyle, we don't regard shifting sheep or spraying or felling trees for firwood as work, its our life, its our recreation. We wouldn't trade it for living in town no matter how much was offered.
 
On a side note, shouldn't you all be blaming the farmer who subdivided the land into small blocks in the first place? Aren't they the ones to blame as they have obviously farmed the capital gain of the land, rather than animlas/crops? In our case that would mean going back about 100yrs to find the bugger and tell "no, that sloping-to-steep land that hugs a gully cannot be subdivided off....its part of your productive land don't ya know!".

Have to agree with your last paragraph - well said.

Well done Kirsty. I agree with you. Living on a lifestyle property is not work. It is rather a very pleasant way of life. Beats having neighbours and the exercise it creates for you can only be good for you.

As a Farmer & lifestyle block owner I do see the vaidity of the points in the article, however there are constraints re smaller blokcs in terms of water and sewage which on smaller blocks by unable to supply enough water or treat sewage even on a community type scheme but there will be many places were say 20Ha of land can be so divided and sustainable. It may require different disposal systems and rainwater capture and such a community may be able to own sufficient equipment cooperatively to deal with stock and opther agricultural operations so my main criticism of councils is the unwillingness to investigate pragmatically.

I can see how these tinder-box 10 acre sections are a fire risk.  However its a missed opportunity for the owners of them.  As a 10 acre block owner myself I keep the grass down by just cutting it for balage a couple of times a year.  It makes a bit of money and keeps the grass under control.  Failing that I'd graze it with a few cows or find someone else who needs a bit of grazing.  I'm guessing those that have super long grass are just not aware of the fact that they can make a few bucks if they wish or maybe they don't need any help to pay the rates.  If you have Hay - cut the freakin Hay or sell it standing, but do something. 
As far as cutting these blocks into 1 hectare sections goes the main issue would be sorting out the potable water, irrigation and septic tank systems.  Highly doubt that councils would want them on council supplies so would we have 4 wells and 4 septic tank systems per current 10 acres?  If these were shared the maintenance, upkeep etc would need to be shared and what if 1 owner wanted to pay to run plenty of irrigation but the others didn't; how do they split the increased power bill.  I can see how councils put these issues in the too hard basket. 

The lifestyle block I live on is part of a small private water scheme.  Back in 1995 at the time of the original subdivision, council required the water scheme be put in place for the 12 Lots created.  Most such schemes are Incorporated societies and have a governing set of Rules.  We all have tanks and a set per day allocation.  The allocation is controlled via a restrictor valve placed at the boundary connection - and this is metered.  The restrictors only allow the set amount of water e.g. 2000litres - to pass through the valve. The Society owns the restrictor valves. So it is quite easy to have a shared water scheme.  Though a domestic water supply, if people choose to use it for irrigation/stock then that's up to them, but they don't get more than their daily allocation.  
 

Up to you Gordon. I prefer surf,  mountian biking, wind surfing and tinkering on old cars. If it makes you happy. Beats fly strike any day

Went for a nice bike for an hour today on the local foreshore A. Best of both worlds and only five minutes from my 1.3 hectares.

Went for a nice bike for an hour today on the local foreshore A. Best of both worlds and only five minutes from my 1.3 hectares.

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In my neck of the woods, or should I say green/brown desert, about the only trees left are in town or on the lifestyle blocks. Its been a wholesale tree removal blitz, with nary a shade tree anywhere. The cows must wait for the irrigator to pass overhead in order to get any relief from our 2014/5 summer. 
Its because farming is so heavily subsidised that this can occur; no mitigation for water degradation, virtually free water(including govt backing for new irrigation projects; financial and legislative) the gifting from forestry of all the carbon credits, govt subsidies for ag research, no requirement to decontaminate the cadmium dumped on our soils,  etc etc.
Now this is going to be a real environmental/economic disaster.

Amusing to read the various comments.  Great article, Hamish, but there's nothing short of a Gubmint fiat decision, to dismantle the TLA Plannerista poobahs.
 
The fire risk will take only one stray spark to be crystallised, and the unmanaged 'life sentence' blocks will suffer.  There's two-three months of summer to go, if my 93 year old mum-in-law's clear memory of the 30's is anything to go by, so we have time to find out.
 
As to the rest of the blather, it's a bit rich for urbanites who, as in Wellington until very recent times tipped its raw sewage into Cook Strait, Palmy and the Manawatu unto the present day discharging insufficiently treated urban wastes into rivers, Christchurch with its 20-year consent to overflow sewage sumps into the Avon and Heathcote whenever needed, Auckland with its numerous swimming-restricted bays, and so on and so on, to be pontificating aboot 'environmental disasters'.  Remove the beam from thine eye....
 
And as for 'subsidised farmers', show the data via an extract from the National Accounts.  Put up or....  and then compare that with urban transport subsidies......
 
Data beats opinion every day of the yesr.....

Farmers are hugely subsidised, (as cowboy asked 'subsidised from where?') but so too are Doctors, commuters etc etc. None of this is an argument for farmers being the only ones.
Farmers are polluters, but so too is anyone who buys from anything from China. Pointing the finger at urbanites is dodging the issue dont you think? Being aware seems to be the problem; then can come the remedies. But denial is the largest political grouping in NZ.
As for financial accounts; they only capture the superficial and financialised, and not the real capital costs. Go for a drive and see all the erosion of soils around NZ. Soil is real capital, not the crap you find in our "National Accounts"! How many hill country farmers would actually make a profit if the soil loss was included in their accounts. Financial gain here and now at the expense of future viability?
What do you say about carbon credit transfers from forest owners to livestock owners? Methinks you blather too much to realise how far into the matrix of subsidy you are. 
National accounts wont capture Cadmium toxicity, methane volumes, Nitrogen/phosphorous/spray and residue buildups, loss of bio-diversity, ...well this gives you somewhere to start huh? 
Need to pull heads out of the dark spaces and look around. The real accountant is mother nature, not the tossers in WGTN!