Simon Swaffield and Carys Swanwick
26th May 2006
Landscape has been in the news a lot recently. Landowners and developers are making frequently emotive challenges to District Councils who attempt to identify landscapes that require protection under the Resource Management Act. Communities and conservation groups voice equally heartfelt concerns about the effects of development upon New Zealand’s coastal and rural landscapes. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has concluded that the current system of management is failing to deal adequately with cumulative landscape change.
The current problems originate in the reforms of the 1980’s. The Resource Management Act was introduced both to enable greater flexibility in land use, and to improve the process of environmental management. It achieved the first goal by changing the way land development is controlled.
Before the RMA, a landowner could only legally use land for the purposes determined by the local council. Most coastal and rural land was limited to agriculture. Under the RMA, a Council must now justify any limitations it places upon how people use and subdivide land, by reference to the effects of that use. Many landowners have gained significant additional property rights from the change. At the same time, however, the RMA also imposes a stronger requirement upon Councils (and hence upon landowners) to manage land sustainably - including the need to protect outstanding natural landscapes from ‘inappropriate’ change.
The costs and benefits of these changes in the balance of property rights and the public interest are not spread evenly across all land. Some landowners have been able to benefit from large capital gains in land value, by realizing development opportunities. Many have been able to reduce debt, retire, or rationalize their properties as a result. Others, however, have not been so fortunate and believe their use of land has been unreasonably curtailed by plans prepared under the RMA.
The situation has frequently been made worse by the way in which plans have been drawn up. In the 1990’s central government left local councils largely to their own devices, and until recently provided little guidance. Many small rural authorities lacked necessary skills or resources, and antagonized local communities and landowners by releasing ‘consultation’ plans which already showed ‘red lines’ marking proposed landscape protection zones. The result is confrontation and conflict, with increasingly polarized views, and frequent references and appeals to the Environment Court. The whole question of landscape values and distinctiveness that provides communities with a sense of their place in New Zealand has been drawn more deeply into an adversarial legal process.
How can the situation be improved? The past decade offers several lessons. First, it is vital to engage communities and landowners at the start of the planning process, not at the end. Second, all landscapes change, all of the time. The focus needs to be upon understanding the process of change, and managing the consequences, rather than attempting to freeze a landscape at a point in time. Third, where policy or rules are needed in order to protect significant values (and there will undoubtedly be many situations like this), they should be carefully targeted upon the aspects of change that really matter, avoiding unnecessary constraints upon everyday land management.
Some useful insight can also be gained from looking overseas. The United Kingdom has historically used a similar approach to current practice in New Zealand, focusing upon identification and designation of ‘outstanding’ or ‘special’ landscapes. In recent years however there has been a significant shift towards understanding the distinctive character of all landscapes, with emphasis on what makes them different from each other, rather than better or worse, or more or less important. This allows planning strategies to be devised that address the needs and opportunities of different landscapes, from conservation of valued features in some areas, to restoration of landscape systems or even creating new landscape structures in other areas.
In the UK, central government advice documents have established a more consistent approach, and there is now an accepted framework of landscape character assessment. Although there is still debate about what strategies are appropriate in different areas, conflicts over basic principles have largely disappeared.
While the circumstances are inevitably different, New Zealand could also benefit from an approach that pays more attention to understanding what makes all of our landscapes distinctive, rather than just attempting to “red line” certain areas. The results of these types of character assessment could inform councils, communities and landowners about how landscapes are changing and where development would best be undertaken, what factors it should take into account, as well as indicating where development will be less appropriate. This is hardly revolutionary, and indeed some consultants are already moving to such an approach. But a much broader consensus is needed among communities, landowners, council planners and landscape specialists about ways to identify and manage landscape values, if we are to move beyond the current atmosphere of conflict.
Simon Swaffield is Professor of Landscape Architecture at Lincoln University. Carys Swanwick is Professor and former Head of the Landscape Department at Sheffield University, UK, and has been on sabbatical leave at Lincoln University.