Fiona Curran-Cournane

Ministry for the Environment

Fiona has been a principal scientist at the Ministry for the Environment since 2020. Prior to that, she spent nearly nine years as a land and soil scientist in the Research and Evaluation Unit at Auckland Council. She has interests in the incorporation of science into policy formulation. Research interests include the impacts of development pressures onto land and soils, as well as taking a systems approach on matters related to the environment and the wider food system.

Slowing the shrinking of the most versatile land to help secure the resilience of every generation

New Zealand’s most versatile land are becoming increasingly lost to irreversible development. My involvement with contributing active advice on these issues commenced over a decade ago, focusing on the Auckland region. These issues were first flagged in 1950s, with the rate of loss accelerating as the region’s population was continuing to grow, requiring more housing.

Maximising on council owned or archived datasets, I was involved in building a comprehensive evidence base on the extent of these issues. Attempts were made to incorporate this evidence into policy and decision-making through involvement with hearings spanning resource consents to private plan changes through to regional scales. Despite the evidence, the odds continue to be stacked against versatile land.

For example, in 2019 it was calculated that legacy and current Auckland Unitary Plan zones have allowed development to occupy 34%, 38% and 19% of LUC class 1, 2, and 3, respectively. There are also additional fragmentation pressures to land beyond these zonal boundaries. While the extent of loss is greatest in Auckland, these issues are apparent across Aotearoa and the globe.

The National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land acknowledges the national importance of this issue and, albeit exceptions, aims to protect against these irreversible losses. However, policy is only as good as its effectiveness and it is therefore imperative to regularly monitor these trends, to optimise on government datasets that project out, and undertake robust policy effectiveness monitoring to show whether policy is justified or whether shifts in policy are needed to achieve the intended outcome.

With these irreversible losses facing land now and in the future, it is important that long-term thinking is instilled into decision-making. Evidence-informed planning that more ambitiously considers intergenerational equity, can better ensure the demands of the present do not outweigh the rights and resilience of the future.