Creating a quality future for Marlborough


Last Modified: 11-4-2022 9:32

© Christopher Cookson  License this image

Recently, concerns that Blenheim is running out of land for residential development has been in the news.

A client of mine once made a metaphorical statement to me “God isn’t making any more land.”

The client in question was an atheist with no belief in God, but based on their observation of geology; with the exception of the occasional large earthquake and volcanic eruption, which cause issues of their own, and may well be offset by rising sea levels due to climate change, New Zealand’s land area is not increasing.

Apparently Blenheim has a land shortage for residential development, but there is a government mandate that councils must have a strategy for population growth.

My ancestors arrived in the top of the south 180 years ago, in 1842, having endured a rough sea crossing that lasted months, paying a considerable amount, and leaving everything they knew behind, on the understanding that land would be provided them in the new colony of New Zealand. Unfortunately the botched New Zealand Company experiment failed both Māori and Pākehā alike, making promises that were simply impossible to keep without creating injustice on one side or other. My great-grandfather, the first generation to be born here, but the third to actually live in New Zealand, is scathing in his memoirs as he writes of the New Zealand Company.

“In 1840-41 the New Zealand Company sold in England some two hundred thousand acres of land, each purchaser to receive one acre of town land, fifty acres of suburban land, and one hundred and fifty acres of rural land, the price being 300 pounds, to include a passage to New Zealand for the purchaser, his wife and family. No land as yet had been secured…”

New Zealand is essentially a nation founded on dubious property development, and that tradition seems to have been kept alive well into the 21st Century with regular news stories of collapsed property development firms, leaky homes, problems housing our existing population while encouraging massive immigration and other scandals that suggest little has been learnt in nearly two centuries since European colonisation formally began.

All this leads me to question whether a central government mandate for ongoing population growth should exist. I’m Pākehā, but I think it’s useful to look to the Treaty of Waitangi as a model of how New Zealand development should take place.

The English common law rule of precedent applies in New Zealand, and the Treaty of Waitangi is unequivocal in both the English and te reo Māori versions that the desires of existing citizens, who initially were all Māori, have priority. If the community is on board with development, that’s fine, but if it’s only limited economic interests who want it, it’s not. Much of the subsequent conflict that arose was due to Māori attempting to exercise this right, which conflicted with colonial desire for economic development. It’s hard to know in hindsight, how things would have turned out if the British claim to sovereignty had actually respected other aspects of the treaty. It’s ironic that as Māori were being disenfranchised, numerous committees and boards were being set up around the country by Pāhekā settlers to allow devolved, community governance.

What’s all this got to do with freeing up land for housing? For a start, I’m not sure whether central government has a mandate for this, and second, even if it does, local communities must have a say in how it happens. Once again, drawing on precedent, my own ancestors apparently had fairly cordial relations with local Māori, so clearly a growing population in itself wasn’t an issue as long as it allowed all to benefit on terms they were satisfied with.

I think it’s a tragedy when some Pākehā express racist views about Māori, and yet also demand more community say. This is exactly the precedent the Treaty set; at the time of signing virtually the only people born here were Māori, so naturally it applied exclusively to them, but the sentiment of strong, local voices with devolved decision making is part of the kiwi psyche and is enshrined in our founding document. It’s almost as though while the missionaries were imparting Christianity to Māori, a few Māori values may have rubbed off on Pākehā as well.

Given that land is finite, I think Marlburians need to have an honest discussion about what land use they’re comfortable with, as any increase in population, or for that matter other activity, requires an alteration in land use that may or may not be beneficial to the community. Higher population density increases the pollution from private vehicles and wood burners; the latter often the only affordable option for many people to heat their homes.

Over my lifetime, I can remember a great deal of productive agricultural and horticultural land converted to houses. However some of it was marginally productive, and there are cases where a well organised home vegetable garden could produce more that was was being produced previously, but in other cases, there has been a net loss in productive capacity.

By rights, a larger population should support a greater range of public facilities without an undue rates burden, but in practice, it always seems that the increased cost of infrastructure associated with population growth, along with subsidies for developers mean that existing residents end up paying for growth instead of benefiting from it. There’s also the assumption that ‘bigger is better’, which seems to come very much from an extrovert attitude to society and is discriminatory against those who are more introverted and prefer a quieter, less crowded place to live. In the 21st Century, discrimination against race, religion, gender, are all considered inappropriate, however without care, civic planning could end up discriminating against people based on personality type. By all means, extroverts should be catered for, but they should not be the sole decision makers around what Marlborough’s community should look like.

I’m cautiously optimistic. I rarely visit the Blenheim CBD, and apart from things like clothes and footwear which need to be tried on for fit and I think the horse has bolted as far as local retail goes. Covid has only accelerated the demise of local retail, however that frees up an enormous amount of real estate in areas with no natural character or residential neighbours to offend for redevelopment as high density residential accommodation for those who don’t enjoy a section to maintain, and enjoy close proximity to other people. That would avoid irreversibly removing more productive land from circulation, allow some modest population growth, and do so without putting pressure on those who want to continue to enjoy a more traditional, low density lifestyle to give up their traditions in the name of ‘progress’.

Ironically, even though I’m an introvert, I can vouch for this, from an experience some years ago somewhere that’s very close to the antipodes of Marlborough; northern Portugal. I stayed in an apartment building in Porto for several weeks, and while I don’t think I’d like to live in an apartment permanently, several things impressed me about high density housing done right. The apartments were soundproof, so having neighbours on the same floor or above or below you was not an issue. There was green space between apartment buildings, and many of them had small retailers like hairdressers on the ground floor. Supermarkets were within walking distance. Meanwhile, the historical centre of the city remained in its traditional state as a world heritage site. As a small, ancient nation that gained independence before the first humans set foot in Aotearoa, Portugal has long since exhausted the potential for endless expansion, and I think here in Marlborough we also need to start considering how our community will look when expansion is no longer possible. There’s a cautionary tale of what happens if that doesn’t occur, and again I use Portugal as an example. Looking to expand beyond the confines of its small land area, it became the first European nation to venture out beyond the known shores of Europe, beginning competitive and brutal waves of ‘discovery’ and colonisation harming both the colonisers and the colonised, that culminated centuries later right here at the antipodes of Portugal, Aotearoa/New Zealand as the British completed what the Portuguese had begun. Perhaps a few hundred years ago, colonisers could be excused to an extent, as they themselves had been subject to successive waves of colonisation, with expansionism at the expense of others and the environment something that become normalised. To a large extent we get our English swear words as a result of the Norman conquest of England, as the French speaking conquerors considered English an uncivilised language. With modern concepts of human rights, and knowledge of ecology and natural cycles, there is simply no longer an excuse for endless expansionism without being complicit in crimes against the biosphere, including humanity.

Some people measure success in financial terms, but I’d like to suggest that to many New Zealanders, regardless of where their ancestors came from, quality of life with access to rivers, forests, fisheries is a truer measure of success.

As I look at the Wither Hills Farm Park to the south of Blenheim, I’m filled with hope. The hills were burnt by Māori and burnt again by Pākehā settlers, but by the 1940s the environmental damage presented such a hazard to human settlement that the first section of the hills was purchased and turned into reserve land. Today, the hills represent a coexistence of agriculture, nature, and human recreation. Molesworth is another good example of how failed attempts at economic expansion have given way to a coexistence with nature. Perhaps rather than seeing the shortage of land for expansion in Blenheim as a problem, it should be seen as an opportunity. The Wairau was one of the earliest sites of human habitation in New Zealand, but Kupe’s arrival didn’t make him any more tangata whenua than Cook’s sticking a flag in the ground did. What made Kupe’s descendants tangata whenua was establishing a relationship with the land, probably with quite a bit of trial and error along the way, until a peaceful coexistence could be established. There’s a whakataukī, “Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua” (As people disappear, the land remains.)

I don’t think the land discriminates against people based on their ancestry, but rather what sort of relationship they are prepared to develop with it, including having the wisdom to learn from the knowledge acquired by those who preceded them.

Some people might argue, “How will we keep all the builders and real estate agents employed, if Marlborough doesn’t keep growing?”

I think that misses the point. Humans are adaptable. I’ve had to change the focus of what I do for work over the years, and there’s no reason why other people can’t too. What matters is that people have a happy, healthy life, not the specifics of how they achieve it, and if that means a few fewer builders or real estate agents in future so be it. There is actually so much existing housing stock in Marlborough that needs upgrading to provide healthier, more environmentally friendly living, that I don’t think too many builders need to be out of work for many years to come, even if not one new house is added to local housing stock, although realistically plenty of older homes do lend themselves to redevelopment at higher density, and that’s fine as long as it’s through natural attrition, not forced onto existing residents. There’s already a serious problem in Marlborough with a lack of medical professionals to support the local population as it’s grown, and there are no plans or possibly even means for expansion of Wairau Hospital even as there has been significant population increase since it was redeveloped. Increased population with poorer access to healthcare is hardly an improvement in standard of living.

With an ongoing trend of reduction of the Wairau aquifer, climate change, and already over-allocated water in Marlborough, could Blenheim’s growth result in water restrictions in future? No one wants a situation like the catastrophic Cape Town water crisis where people were advised not to flush the toilet.

While unsustainable population growth isn’t a good thing, nor is a population collapse, and looking 30 years ahead, Marlborough’s already high elderly demographic is going to be even greater, but as these people start to die off, it could lead to a population collapse, and a surplus of homes on the market focused on the needs of the elderly, with a lack of homes suitable for families. Careful thought needs to go into ensuring that Marlborough continues to meet intergenerational needs in terms of housing and quality of life.

Part of the charm of Marlborough compared to somewhere like Auckland, is its low population density and appeal as an outdoors adventure playground. In planning for the future, it’s important that aspirations for growth don’t kill the golden goose that makes Marlborough attractive in the first place.

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Cookson, C. (2022). Creating a quality future for Marlborough. Retrieved December, 2, 2023, from

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