One of the long-standing issues around which we are starting to make good environmental progress is farming - or more broadly, land use. But we're far from perfect when it comes to the way we manage growth.

Even a lot of the diehard farmers who a few short years ago were poo-pooing the idea that in following their forebears' footsteps they might be irreversibly damaging the land have come round to acknowledging that so-called "traditional" chemically-aided intensive farming is a dead-end path.

Okay, it's taken a rising clamour from non-farmers over the atrocious state of our waterways to embed and reinforce that what goes on the land must stay on the land and not seep off to cause problems downstream.

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And there's still a way to go to get farmers to embrace the harder targets needed to properly control nutrient runoff, not to mention the yet to be addressed inequitable "first in first served" way we allocate water, but that most farmers are now actively working toward sustainability is a major change.

However, it must be hard for farmers not to be cynical when huge swathes of the most productive land in the country – especially in South Auckland, but also in pockets around Hawke's Bay – are disappearing under the bulldozers and concrete to produce not vegetables but houses.

Bad enough National forced the end of the Auckland greenbelt so their developer mates could make hay; Labour have not only continued but upped the pace of this degradation and seem blind to the environmental result. Yet once that top-notch land goes, it's gone for good.

I was initially hopeful Labour's interest in re-vitalising the provinces would finally manifest some common sense around urbanisation, but so far there's only vague encouragement with no forthright intent.

Sure, there's the much-vaunted $3 billion provincial growth fund, but it's being frittered on bits and bobs here and there and lacks practical big picture direction.

Certainly marry that to the KiwiBuild programme and it's a golden opportunity going begging.

Because it's the rest of New Zealand that needs 10,000 houses per year, not Auckland. Instead of trying to loosen the seams there before they burst, incentivise households and industries to relocate out of Auckland and provide smaller centres with infrastructural support to handle the load.

This shift is already happening regardless; the boom in house prices in Hawke's Bay is driven by hundreds of people moving here from the big smoke.

Which underlines that the Government should already have planned provincial growth as a mainstay. Instead, apart from Shane Jones throwing money about at random, it's yet to react.

Labour needs to reinvigorate its roots and reorient population growth in a way that benefits the whole country. Call it old-style socialist regulation if you must, but it's necessary to protect the future prosperity of the land and its citizens – and redress the chaos neoliberal market forces have delivered.

Just as farms need land use regulation to ensure they're sustainable, so too urban areas – especially to stop incremental spread over highly productive land.

Hawke's Bay for example could be planning a new "stand alone" township of say 20,000 – one year's worth of Auckland's growth – on poorer land such as that out toward Bridge Pa.

Sure, there'd be issues to overcome – including a decent water supply and enough jobs to go round – but with proactive government assistance those are not insurmountable.

Duplicate that effort nation-wide and we'd have a much healthier balanced economy. And save our most fertile land for growth of the sort it's made for.