Opinion: What's next for the High Country?

  • Opinion
  • 23/02/2019

By Federated Farmers South Island regional policy manager Kim Reilly

OPINION:  The latest move by the Government on tenure review and Crown pastoral leases may end up being a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The proposals just released by Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) for consultation risk locking up in perpetuity leased land to the point it becomes a quasi-public-estate, despite many rights and responsibilities of that leased land being held in private hands.

For better or worse, the Government is ending the tenure review process. But it is not abandoning the desire to see out better landscape and biodiversity protection, so will that onus instead be fully placed on farmer lessees, while at the same time bringing into question the viability of future farming operations?

While there has been public criticism at the profits made by some landowners benefiting from the outcome of previous tenure review processes, the government's ending of tenure review doesn't right those wrongs, or redress that situation. Nor does it acknowledge the huge range of positives, such as the expansion of the conservation estate or improved public access, that have resulted from previous tenure review processes. 

What the overall package proposed will do, however, is impact those who have chosen not to go through tenure review; and by the Government choosing to end tenure review without consultation, there is now no ability for farmers or stakeholders to discuss or submit on alternatives, or changes needed.  

 As part of the proposals, the Government is seeking the views of "all New Zealanders". Consultation with the wider public provides a transparent and democratic process, however, despite best intentions, the fact remains many New Zealanders don't have an in-depth knowledge or understanding of the complexities of Crown pastoral leases, tenure review or high country management.  Consultation should be with those directly affected - not those who may only be informed by what they've heard in media sound bites. 

Tenure review has not caused all the current problems, nor will its removal solve them all.

The Resource Management Act provides the regulatory basis of sustainably managing New Zealand's land, air and water. 

Most districts and regions are well into producing second generation district and regional plans. These are based on current understandings, evidence, concerns, and consultation. Environmental groups and the Director General of Conservation have been heavily involved in these processes - including challenging many council decisions in the Environment Court. Matters mediated and settled have been agreed to as being environmentally appropriate, and they have been signed off by the Environment Court as being consistent with the RMA. These new levels of protection are only just starting to become operative. Many haven't had a chance yet to show the benefits to landscape and biodiversity protection. 

There are problems with both the Government's announcement, and the proposal's accompanying document.

The use of the word 'lease' in the summary document is a prime example of a word open to distortion.  It implies they're talking about leases as we typically think of them - a year by year shop lease for instance.  That is not the case with Crown pastoral leases, which are a unique form of lease that extends significant rights and responsibilities onto leaseholders. 

The Crown began leasing high country land to farmers in the 1850s, as the harsh high country land was not considered viable for non-farming purposes. Over time, the Government passed most of its rights and obligations on to those leaseholders. 

The Land Act needed to introduce a 'carrot' to make lessees pay for and take over the Crown's ownership responsibilities.  Leases were made perpetually renewable, and extended significant rights, including the right of quiet enjoyment, on to leaseholders.  It also passed to the lessee ownership of any improvements, such as buildings, fences, and improvements to soil on that land.  

There is no clear information about how the Government is proposing to redress these commitments it earlier made. Is there a budget or estimate of costs for the Government to buy land that may no longer be viable to the leaseholder?

There are many issues here that need to be looked at, and in good faith, if the Government wants to bring everyone in the community along. 

Kim Reilly is Federated Farmers South Island regional policy manager.