Time to avoid hazardous areas

Land is often not secure, as witnessed by this slip on the coast at the northern approach to...
Land is often not secure, as witnessed by this slip on the coast at the northern approach to Kakanui, North Otago, in this photograph taken last year. Photo by David Bruce.
Mick Strack questions whether there actually is security in property.

Home ownership has long been an aspiration for New Zealanders. It was, after all, one of the primary motivating factors of colonial settlers travelling from Europe to this land of new opportunities.

Throughout most of the 20th century it was a reasonable goal to own your own home, and indeed various governments encouraged and assisted with home ownership and promoted its merits: social cohesion; connected communities; family stability; housing and neighbourhood care; health and educational benefits and even political engagement.

Times and politics have changed. Our rapidly fragmenting society has exploded the reasonable goal of home ownership for a large proportion of Kiwis.

No doubt Auckland property owners are not unhappy with the current housing situation, given that they have increased their wealth by 20% this last year by doing nothing!

But the very many who are struggling to find affordable housing are suffering on almost all indicators of quality of life, and current debates about the housing crisis serve to emphasise the disenfranchisement of those with no permanent settling place.

Our current Government strongly supports the protection of private property, and arguably National's political support base comes from property owners. So it would seem the Government recognises the wealth creation benefits of property, but minimises the social benefits.

A policy of rapid development of high quality medium density housing could have massive benefits on a wide range of social indicators, and pay dividends from future savings in health and arguably crime, education and social capital.

But there is also another side to property. There is a high expectation that property values will always continue to rise and that investment in property is secure and without risk.

There is also an expectation government policy will continue to protect private property rights. In fact, the current Government has suggested this, for example, with discussions about RMA reforms based on a selection of principles, one of which is ''greater weight to property rights'', or in other words: we'll continue to protect your freedom to do whatever you like on your property, with scant regard for environmental or social impact.
However, like any investment, property is not risk free.

The latest climatic events demonstrate land can easily be lost to the sea or inundated by floodwaters.
These events should put property owners on notice they should move away from hazard zones; that they may not be able to get insurance cover; that banks should be wary about lending on insecure land; and that local authorities may impose development restrictions - all of which will reduce the value, marketability and use options of land.

Property owners must accept the losses in land value just as they have been happy to accept the gains. Our land registration system is strongly focused on security of title, but that should not include foreseeable hazards that threaten land.

Our planners must plan for more appropriate development, away from identified hazard areas.

In fact, planners already have such power, but many local authorities have succumbed to the pressure from highly resourced property owners and have offered expensive engineering solutions to hazard threats, including sea walls and pumping stations, in a vain effort to hold back the sea.

It is time the wider community engaged in a meaningful discussion on the long term options, including retreat from the coast, restoration of natural beach processes and restoration of wetlands.

Such actions would compromise private property rights but greatly enhance public and environmental values. At the very least, local authorities should impose a moratorium on all development consents in coastal and flood plain hazard zones.

In Dunedin, the Second Generation District Plan proposal is the ideal time for such action. While this plan is well advanced in preparation, there will be additional opportunities for submissions.

The recent coastal and flood damage in South Dunedin must serve as an opportunity to plan some innovative long term solutions rather than getting bogged down in private property protection.

Private property needs to be viewed from a broad perspective that recognises both the impermanence of some land and the huge social benefits associated with secure home ownership.

Dr Mick Strack is a senior lecturer in the University of Otago School of Surveying.


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