Tenure review to be scrapped

It’s the year of delivery, Jacinda Ardern says. And Eugenie Sage is set to be one of the first ministers out of the blocks, with a huge shake-up of the South Island’s high country. David Williams reports.

The Government is about to scrap tenure review.

Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage won’t confirm the move, but Newsroom has been told by multiple sources that the controversial process, dubbed “organised corruption” by opponents, is finished. What’s unclear is how Sage intends to deal with two crucial elements: whether the 40 properties already within the process will be allowed to continue; and what clamps might be placed on the powerful Commissioner of Crown Lands.

Using Sage’s previous comments as a guide, it could be expected that those properties at the “substantive proposal” stage of the process, at least, will go on. Opponents of a massive dairy development at Simons Pass Station, in the Mackenzie Basin, will be on tenterhooks, waiting to see where the Minister will draw the line.

An official announcement may be made by Sage as early as this weekend. It’s expected to be bundled with promises of tougher management of South Island high country leases. That will include more scrutiny of discretionary consents to farmers and better monitoring of their effects.

Policy experts will be watching to see if any money is announced for potential land purchases, including for a dryland park that Sage wants to see established this year.

Tenure review’s expected death-knell comes soon after Sage’s agency, Land Information New Zealand, published a frank and scathing assessment of the Crown’s land management.

What is tenure review?

Tenure review ends a Crown pastoral lease by privatising some land and setting aside the rest for conservation.

Bizarrely, in some settlements farmers have been paid by the Crown, because greater value was placed on their interest in the soon-to-be conservation land than the freeholded portion. Research suggests the more rare and threatened the ecological values of the land, the more likely it was to be freeholded.

Tenure review has been slammed by opponents as inefficient, ineffective and ill-judged – not least because former Crown land, once freeholded, has been broken up and sold to property developers for massive profits.

University of Canterbury’s Ann Brower estimates farmers have made $275 million by on-selling 74,000 hectares of former Crown land, at a median sale price of about 500 times what the Crown was paid.

Brower’s latest article, published last November, challenged Sage to turn around a track-record of Crown decisions allowing greater agricultural intensification in the Mackenzie Basin.

The academic and her co-authors noted Sage’s dual ministerial role, saying it was clear she had the power to protect vulnerable land. “The choice and the power reside with the Minister of Land Information.”

Stopping tenure review will enable Sage, a Green Party MP who is also Conservation Minister, to add to her policy wins, such as boosting the Department of Conservation’s budget and blocking Rangitira Developments from coal-mining on West Coast public conservation land. Her credentials have also been questioned, however, for allowing a Chinese water bottling company, Nongfu Springs, to expand its New Zealand operations, and for not intervening over the sale of a Crown pastoral lease to resolve a more-than-a-century-old issue about adding one area to the adjacent Arthur’s Pass National Park.

Sage’s signal

Simon Williamson, who farms just south of Twizel, is the chair of Federated Farmers’ high country industry group. He reveals Sage told him she was scrapping tenure review.

“She’s told me that they won’t change the Land Act, which is something, but she has also told me that tenure review is finished,” he tells Newsroom. (The Land Act 1948 is important because it gives lessees rights in perpetuity. LINZ says these rights include exclusive occupation, right to reside, right to graze the land for pastoral farming, and, with consent, the right to develop for other uses.)

Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor says he’s heard something similar. “I think we’re expecting an announcement before the end of the month, which will posit a fundamental re-think about the future of the high country and of tenure review.”

Both men are well-placed to know what’s going on. Federated Farmers and EDS are represented on a South Island high country advisory group announced by LINZ last August.

(Brower welcomes the scrapping of tenure review, as it’s something she’s been calling for for years. “If [Sage] scraps tenure review then she will have a profound effect on the future of New Zealand. It’s better late than never.”)

Federated Farmers has advocated strongly for properties already in tenure review to be allowed to continue. Williamson says there should also be the ability in the future for Crown pastoral leases to be broken up, in a similar way, if it’s good for both parties.

He expects changes to be announced will make it harder for farmers to get approval for more intensive farming on Crown leases – and that it might cost farmers more to apply for discretionary consents. But he sees one farmer’s loss as another’s opportunity. Intensive farming, it seems, might be traded off for tourism, the country’s biggest export earner.

Williamson points to Business Ministry estimates that international visitor arrivals will reach 5.1 million by 2024. Farmers can help, he says, if they’re allowed to build accommodation on their properties for the likes of trampers and hikers. The Department of Conservation is scratching its head about how to cope with the influx of tourists, he says. And certain hotspots, like Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, are so full there’s talk of installing park-and-ride access.

Tourists come to New Zealand see farming and animals, Williamson says – “they go to bloody Alaska if they just want to see pine trees”. The future of farming in the Mackenzie is strong, he says. “But I think diversification’s always a good thing and I think tourism will be a big part of it.”

“This is the first time LINZ has actually said we stuffed up, and we stuffed up in a major way.” – Ann Brower

Expectations of a high country shake-up come as LINZ publishes a report outlining the faults of Crown management and tenure review. The report, posted on LINZ’s website last week, marks a change in tone from the agency which, critics say, has previously been unwilling or unable to admit its failings.

Brower, of the University of Canterbury, finds the report’s tone remarkable. “I could have written that document – this is what we’ve been saying for a long time.

“This is the first time LINZ has actually said we stuffed up, and we stuffed up in a major way. So, in that sense, it’s very different.”

The report paints a picture of an opaque, unfair system that few are happy with. Crown management has become process-driven rather than focused on results, such as environmental protection, it says. The system is weighted towards farmers. As Sage has noted, and research suggests, tenure review and discretionary consents have led to more intensive farming, at an environmental cost.

LINZ has a “stronger link to farming and economics than ecology”, the report says, while ecological advice for decisions is described as “poor or variable quality”. Compliance and enforcement has been inadequate. The Commissioner of Crown Lands seems unaccountable, some believe.

Tenure review is “slow” and “expensive”, Crown land management inefficient, and its overlap with the Resource Management Act causes headaches, the report says. “The system was designed to enable the Crown to exit the lease arrangements, and is struggling as pressures change.”

Those pressures include the Minister’s inability to intervene on sensitive land issues, especially when intensive farming is approved on land that was, in the main, intended for merino sheep farming. There are also gripes about fair returns to the Crown for “non-pastoral activities”.

If the Government wants to be a long-term landowner in the high country, “then the legislation, regulations and institutional arrangements that support this objective need to be reconsidered”, the report says.

(Since the Crown Pastoral Land Act was passed in 1998, 125 of 303 Crown pastoral leases have completed tenure review. As of November 2017, 345,940 hectares, or 53 percent, of tenure review properties, had been freeholded. Five leases were purchased entirely, adding 125,792 hectares to the Crown estate. In all, 11 new conservation parks have been created.)

Advice already provided

LINZ’s deputy chief executive of Crown property, Jerome Sheppard, says the report’s assessment highlights issues with “the effectiveness, efficiency, durability and accountability” of the Crown pastoral lease system. Some changes have already been made, including increased property inspections, the “better” sharing of information regarding Mackenzie Basin consents with other agencies, and LINZ working more closely with DOC.

“For example, LINZ and DOC tenure review managers now meet each fortnight to review the tenure review programme. We have also seconded staff between agencies to enhance the understanding of each others’ roles, and have joint training coming up in the next few weeks.”

Sheppard says the report’s findings has informed LINZ’s advice, already provided to ministers, about potential legislative changes and improvements to Crown pastoral land management.

The only thing Sage would say to Newsroom is: “The regulatory review report (which LINZ put on its website) highlights some of the issues with current management of pastoral leases and is informing the Government’s policy development.”

“They’ve been remarkably candid about the inadequacies of past performance and have a genuine desire to make improvements.” – Gary Taylor

Williamson, of Federated Farmers, says the LINZ report seems to be a “whole lot of soul-searching”, the likely result of ministerial pressure to be more accountable. “I think they’re looking to see who are the least amount of people they can upset.”

He expects to see changes but warns the Land Act should remain untouched and the Government should steer clear of charging farmers for a sheep’s view – a reference to a previous Labour policy, binned by National, to hike rents for properties based on land values, including amenity values. (In 2007, then Land Information Minister David Parker pulled lakeside land from tenure review to protect alpine landscapes from inappropriate subdivision or development. But the change wasn’t enshrined in law and was overturned.)

Brower says the LINZ report is the most legible piece of work she’s seen from the Crown land manager, reading “like a long and detailed mea culpa”.

“They’ve been very adept at ignoring the facts that I’ve put on the table for the last 15 years.” She notes: “It would be a very Trump-ist government to ignore the facts that its own officials put on the table.”

EDS’s Taylor sees an evolution of LINZ, which, he’s previously said, is now working more closely with other agencies – DOC in particular. Last week’s report is the latest manifestation of what he calls LINZ “progressively reinventing itself”.

“They’ve been remarkably candid about the inadequacies of past performance and have a genuine desire to make improvements.”

Of Sage’s imminent announcement, he says: “We’ve got a minister who does know this policy area very well. So I’m expecting some good things to come out of it.”

Brower is similarly impressed by Sage: “There’s almost no one who knows the high country better than Eugenie.” But she adds: “I’m surprised it’s taken her this long [to scrap tenure review].”

On the crucial point of what happens to properties part-way through tenure review, Brower thinks the Government can pull out of existing negotiations. “There might be a legal impediment, but none that I know of.”

In April 2017, in a judgment that set development rules for the Mackenzie Basin, Environment Court Judge Jon Jackson called for an immediate moratorium on freeholding Crown leases. Brower followed up with an opinion piece detailing the big payouts given to leaseholders through tenure review.

Sage, then an opposition MP, took to Facebook to praise Brower for an “excellent article”. She added: “We need a moratorium and for LINZ to ensure that remaining pastoral leases are farmed in ways which protect their tussocklands, shrublands and landscapes.”

Last year, Sage, as Minister, wouldn’t rule out imposing a moratorium. The public will soon know how far she is willing to go to protect the remaining ecological and landscape values in the high country.

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