By Angus Kebbell
There are 171 remaining Crown pastoral lease properties covering approximately 1.2 million hectares of Crown pastoral land. Crown pastoral leases are perpetually renewable, with 33-year terms. These terms give the leaseholder rights akin to ownership, that is, provided they comply with the terms of the lease they are entitled to exclusive possession of the land in perpetuity. There are some limitations on the use or activities to which the leaseholder can do to the pastoral land. For example, the land can only be used for pastoral farming and consent is needed to, amongst other things, disturb the soil which limits development of the land.
Tenure review currently enables the Crown to negotiate with a leaseholder to give up some of their leasehold rights in return for an option for the leaseholder to purchase the freehold of some of the land.
The idea was that areas of significant ecological or conservation value are returned to full Crown ownership and control, and in exchange the leaseholder will gain full legal ownership and control of the remainder of the land. From the Crown’s point of view, because the leaseholder paid for their freehold land, which was set-off against what the leaseholder was paid by the Crown for selling part of the pastoral lease, tenure review didn’t require the amount of government funding that would be required if the government was simply purchasing the leaseholder’s interest outright.
Some have come out and said, which include the conservation Minister in early 2020, that once a farmer had the full freehold ownership of the land the farmer was then free to do with it as they wish which includes profiteering and the intensification of the land or selling to offshore buyers. The fact that significant areas of conservation land reverted to full Crown control or public control has been grossly overlooked by these political claims.
Here is my discussion with Rob Stokes, the chair of the Federated Farmers High Country group.
More could be done to manage the expectations and outcomes for all interested parties once freehold ownership is obtained, as there are some examples of land being sold after a tenure review process and these have raised eyebrows. However scrapping tenure review and developing The Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill is a step too far and it is turning the screws further when they don’t need to be, you have to ask the question did the conservation minister think this through at all? Why is the Conservation Minister and the Agriculture Minister not more engaged with farmers and why are they not considering the further impacts that this will have? In the last 12 months we have seen changes to fresh water and biodiversity, we are seeing the implementation of farm environment plans which is throwing up the biggest changes to farmers in a lifetime.
I agree with Federated Farmer’s submission on the bill to the Environment Select Committee which lays out their concerns as it largely duplicates matters covered within regional and district plans, and national regulations issued under the Resource Management Act and other national legislation. Their submission states:
• It unnecessarily adds additional layers of consenting, with associated increases in costs and delays on both leaseholders and the taxpayer, for no greater environmental or pastoral outcomes.
• It significantly reduces the independence of the Commissioner for Crown Lands, taking away their autonomy and creating a largely tick-box or flow-chart role.
• It fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship between the Crown as lessor, and the leaseholder. The existing contractual relationship based on trust and reciprocity, would be replaced by an approach of regulation and enforcement, diminishing the future constructiveness and openness of relationships.
• It adopts a one-size fits all approach, which is completely at odds with the realities of the diversity within high country lease properties across the South Island.
• It reduces the certainty around future rentals for these perpetual leases.
It reduces the certainty of leases and the incentivisation to continue to invest in enhanced environmental outcomes, given no accompanying or reciprocal ability to address changing pastoral needs is provided for.
• It has technical flaws that will mean control of plant and animal pest species will become more difficult and constricted, meaning obligations that exist under other regulations or covenants may be jeopardised.
• It is a breach of contract that has not been justified, supported, or shown to be necessary.
• By removing the ability for the Crown to continue with tenure review processes, rather than fixing issues with the process, it means opportunities for the Crown to acquire land with significant conservation, biodiversity or landscape interest for the public estate will be forgone.
• It appropriates the property rights of leaseholders without accompanying compensation, leaving leaseholders effectively managing conservation leases at their own cost and resources, rather than a continuation of pastoral farming leases.
The Crown Pastoral lease lands at the heart of this process have been leased from the Government and used for grazing by farmers since the mid-19th century. Prior to 1948, there was a deterioration in the lands, as leaseholders had not been provided with sufficient security of tenure to justify their continued investment in the long-term infrastructure or environmental management required. Back then, rabbits, feral pigs, goats, deer and weed plant pests had become an issue, and it was acknowledged that a long-term solution was needed. In response to these issues, the Land Act 1948 was introduced, providing leaseholders with perpetually renewable pastoral leases, exclusive occupation rights, and rights to compensation for the improvements they made to the land. This was to give leaseholders a degree of certainty of tenure, and therefore more incentive to invest in the future protection of the land.
This new 2021 law change proposal is poorly drafted and attempts to place significant limitations on day-to-day farming activities. As it stands farmers will need to apply for consent to fence off a wetland or waterway and then another consent to put in a new stock water trough, as an example.
The proposed bill is also at complete at odds with the Government's recent statements that "farmers, growers and producers will play a critical role in New Zealand's economic recovery". So a question to the Government – If farmers really are important to New Zealand’s economic recovery why would you create a policy that completely contradicts that statement?
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Angus Kebbell is the Producer at Tailwind Media. You can contact him here.