In August 2010, the Heretaunga Plains Urban Development Strategy (HPUDS) was adopted by Hastings District, Napier City and Hawke's Bay Regional councils.

With many people currently expressing the view that there is not enough land zoned for residential development around Hastings and Havelock North, it is important that, as a community, we reflect on the objectives of HPUDS and their relevance.

It is timely to do this now as HPUDS is in the process of being reviewed.

The purpose of HPUDS is to:

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- Take a long-term integrated view of urban development on the Heretaunga Plains for the next 30 years.

- Signal a settlement pattern that moves towards a more compact approach to urban development in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the versatile soils of the Heretaunga Plains by controlling the expansion of urban areas, both existing and new.

- Advocate for a clear recognition by all sectors of the community that the versatile soils are a valued natural resource.

- Provide for housing choice but recognise that densities need to be higher to accommodate growth while ensuring the protection of versatile soils.

Why are the soils of the Heretaunga Plains important? Complemented with water, they are some of the most productive in the world.

They are part of our natural capital and we are reliant on them for sustaining the wealth-generating capabilities of exporting our produce, as well as for the contribution that they make to our tourism industry, our wider economy and our general healthy lifestyle.

Taking all of the above into account, it came as a shock to me recently when Hawke's Bay regional councillor Peter Beaven mentioned that from 1950 until the mid-1990s, 2000ha of the Heretaunga Plains surrounding Hastings had been lost to residential development.

To put this into context, the total area of the Heretaunga Plains is about 26,000ha, therefore in just over 40 years heading towards 10 per cent of the precious natural resource has been lost for the production of food and economic wealth.

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Cr Beaven's figures are supported by a document titled The Heretaunga Plains, published in 1967 by the Town and County Planning Branch of the Ministry of Works.

The publication describes the Plains as being "the richest agricultural land - land which is vitally important not only to the County [the former Hawke's Bay County Council] but to New Zealand as a whole".

It also notes that "the loss of this particularly productive land is by no means an improbable occurrence, for even now [1967] urban encroachment is swallowing it up at an alarming rate".

I don't know the figures for the period since the early 1990s but my observation is that the trend has continued, if not accelerated.

Taking all of this into account, there is no doubt in my mind that HPUDS is a critical planning strategy for the Heretaunga Plains.

We absolutely cannot afford to put the sustainability of our natural resource at risk by further encroaching on our versatile soils without careful planning and thought for the future.

Instead we need to focus more on encouraging medium-density housing within the existing urban limits.

We know this can be done and in Hastings there are already areas identified and zoned to enable it.

It will perhaps take more effort and investment than simply zoning more land for greenfield development but the long-term effects will be more sustainable and beneficial to future generations.

Quite simply, the more that we encroach on to the Heretaunga Plains the greater the risk of killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

We cannot afford to do this because the production of the Plains not only makes a significant contribution to the Hawke's Bay economy but, proportionately, that contribution is growing.

- Cynthia Bowers is deputy mayor of Hastings.

- Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: editor@hbtoday.co.nz