July 26, 2008

Lifestyle blocks waste good farm land

Media wanting lifestyler' stoush
By Clive Dalton

The New Zealand media are regularly looking for a stoush over the perceived wasted land used by lifestyle blocks, triggered by a 2007 Waikato University study.

Then to hot up the story, media hounds add the information from Jim Boyd, SPCA Northland, about a 40% increase in animal welfare cases on small blocks. The other part of the inevitable mix is to haul out a Federated Farmer, as they rightly have been vocal on both waste of good land, and poor stockmanship of lifestylers jeopardising our international animal welfare image. There are plenty conventional farmers (some Feds members) that need to note this message too!

Somebody – and finding them is the problem, should have been looking at the wise use of land and water, long before the ten-acre block explosion in the 1970s.

There's no way we'll now get a balanced view or a sensible outcome from all this, as far too many people have entrenched views and vested interests. So you could say that people in glasshouses shouldn't hurl missiles, but that gets you nowhere. Here are some issues.

There are three kinds of lifestyle blocks. First, those who have made a valiant attempt to build on and farm rough land and gullies that nobody wanted.

Then there are blocks on good land where owners are making a serious attempt to farm them to be productive but probably not profitable.

Thirdly, there are ten acres of lawn with a massive "trophy house' on a paved slab in the middle with a winding drive up to the pillared front door. Any 'waste' is clearly with these blocks, and most serious lifestylers agree. This practice needs the clampers put on pronto.

Before the house is built, bare land is a sitting target for animal welfare problems as the owners buy stock to eat the rough grass, and neglect them, or are not interested enough to learn. These are townies who transplant their town behaviour into the country – ignoring neighbours and only get out at weekends.

In the 1970s Waipa District Council, and probably others, would not let you buy a block unless you could prove it was an economic unit, but that didn't last long as they realised that this was restricting income from rates.

So now the only restriction most councils have is a minimum of 0.5ha, and this is mainly for sewerage reasons. Even this is too big for some folk and too small for keeping animals.

This recent open slather has caused awful water problems and these will certainly get worse. A dairy farmer told me that their old family farm had great bore water but after they got 12 lifestyler neighbours, they now all have iron water. Do the councils that allow this to happen have a detailed record of underground aquifers? They seem to leave it to well drillers and hope.

Why don't the 'building approvers' insist that solar heating and roof water are mandatory? Some trophy houses must have half an acre of roof on the garage block alone.

The rush to get out of town to live has without doubt put life back into local communities, and vets and stock agents who at first found lifestylers a nuisance now comment that they provide a substantial part of their business.

Most people who sold land to lifestylers were farmers, as selling at the inflated prices for small blocks suited their cash flow and retirement fund admirably. I know plenty who kept their house and a block to retire on and now spend their days with binoculars complaining about all the silly things their neighbours are doing, and moaning when they are ask for help.

There's still endless scope to increase production from current farmed land so we a long way from panic stage on this aspect. In any case about a third of beef cattle are on small blocks at the moment.

Animal welfare problems could be fixed fast. At present it's a farce and you have to feel for dedicated blokes like Jim Boyd of SPCA. They have no dough so they ask MAF to take on big farm jobs. Then MAF say they have no dough either and pass them back!

If the courts applied the law and used the full penalties and banned anyone found guilty from keeping animals for life, the message would soon get through. At the moment smart lawyers preserve cruelty to animals. A person may be fined $200 and the lawyers cost the SPCA $2000 so they are loathe taking cases to court.

The average turnover of blocks is about 5-6 years, which surprised a lot of people who surmised it would be less. It may get less now that petrol is on the up, as running at least three cars (his, hers and the young folks) is starting to bite.

There are over 140,000 small blocks in New Zealand and numbers and value have increased over the last five years. These folk have complied with the regulations, and the fact that these were badly thought out is not their problem.

So let's hope that the Waikato University study alerts planners and bureaucrats to the wise use of all our precious land and not just the lifestylers.

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