Agency’s three-year gap in consent checks

The Crown’s land manager didn’t make specific compliance checks on Crown pastoral lease consents for three years. David Williams reports.

Land Information New Zealand has been pulling up its socks since the Government changed two years ago.

Criticised for years for mis-managing Crown pastoral lease farms, it was rapped over the knuckles by incoming minister Eugenie Sage for granting discretionary consents that allowed out-of-kilter intensive farming in some areas – including the fragile Mackenzie Basin – wrecking some areas with significant values. LINZ was seen as a soft touch on farmers, especially under a National-led Government.

There have been changes at the top, with a new chief executive and Commissioner of Crown Lands. LINZ has also been working more closely with other agencies – the Department of Conservation, two local councils, and the regional council – with an interest in the Mackenzie.

Fresh figures released under the Official Information Act show why changes were needed.

LINZ, the agency responsible for managing more than 1.2 million hectares of Crown pastoral land through 167 leases, did no specific inspections for consent compliance, either itself or through contractors, for three straight financial years – between July 2015 and June 2018. Either side of those three years, it managed only 11 inspections in total.

Shown the figures, Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage says: “This was under the former government – we have a different government.” (The coalition was confirmed in October 2017.) 

“But there also needs to be some changes in the Crown Pastoral Land Act and the whole issue of compliance and enforcement is one of the issues that’s being looked at.”

She hopes to have a Cabinet paper outlining proposed amendments to the Act ready in months.

Job ‘misunderstood’

Kevin Hague, a former Green MP who now heads conservation lobby group Forest & Bird, says the figures illustrate LINZ has misunderstood its role as one of the country’s major land managers for the public.

“It has a real stewardship role around protecting the values that New Zealanders have for our special places. And it has clearly not understood that to be its job. Even though the regulatory infrastructure exists and ought to have been guiding their practice it has failed to do that.”

Even farmers haven’t been happy. Mackenzie farmer Andrew Simpson, of Balmoral Station, 6000 hectares of which is pastoral lease, says LINZ has been “a wee bit absent” in recent years. “That’s been difficult for farmers to know where they stand.”

Official LINZ data provided to Newsroom shows between July 2014 and June 2018 – four financial years – it undertook more than 60 “general” property inspections of Crown pastoral leases, seven of which included LINZ staff. (These visits also include consent compliance checks.)

Those visits spiked in the last financial year, with 24 visits by contractors accompanying LINZ staff. From last month, property inspections are being carried out by LINZ staff alone. LINZ’s Christchurch-based group manager of land and property Jeremy Barr says increased inspections are just part of a suite of operational improvements being made.

Other figures show the number of discretionary consents granted to pastoral lessees by LINZ has dropped from 72 three years ago to 18 last year. However, many of this year’s 72 applications hadn’t been processed.

The agency sent 17 warning letters to lessees two years ago, up from single digits the previous three years. Last financial year the number of warning letters stood at two, but LINZ says inspection reports were still being analysed and more warnings may be sent.

“I think they’ve been pretty burnt by the public criticism that they’ve experienced.” – Kevin Hague

Sage told delegates at the Environmental Defence Society conference in Auckland yesterday LINZ’s operational changes were funded by an extra $3.1 million over four years announced in May’s Budget. “It needs to be more active in the way it stewards those lands.

“Previously there’s been a lot of engagement of third parties – contractors, rather than LINZ – who are responsible for decisions on discretionary consents; responsible for interactions with leaseholders. LINZ is now taking a much more active role itself and this funding is enabling it to at least provide a bottom line commitment that once every two years there will be an inspection of every pastoral lease.”

Hague says Sage’s expectations of LINZ’s land management are in line with the public’s. Nothing can be done about past damage, he says. “We just have to try and make the forward-looking regime work better.”

He’s confident a culture shift and turnaround in performance is LINZ’s genuine intention. A few years ago, much of the public might not have heard of LINZ, he says. But a lift in public awareness of its role, including failing to protect large parts of the Mackenzie Basin, had been “useful”.

“I think they’ve been pretty burnt by the public criticism that they’ve experienced.”

More intensive farming on land either actively or previously under Crown control has led to a shake-up in high country policy by the Government, including scrapping the controversial tenure review process. Before that announcement, LINZ published an internal report – basically a mea culpa – admitting it hadn’t been focused on results like environmental protection, and the management regime was skewed towards farmers.

Minister congratulated

Green groups are impressed with LINZ’s turnaround. Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor congratulated Sage yesterday for the “rebirth” of a “pretty deficit-ridden organisation”. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

(Previous critics of LINZ will be withholding their judgment because the supposed rebirth involves many of the same players from the previous “hands-off” regime. They’ll also be keen to see the quality of the Department of Conservation’s ecological advice.)

Pastoral lessees, meanwhile, are worried.

Mackenzie farmer Simpson dodges Newsroom’s question about whether it was acceptable for LINZ to have too few specific compliance inspections of pastoral leases. Farmers welcome more regular inspections as a “vast improvement”, he says. “It is a partnership and we want to strengthen that partnership.”

He and other farmers are clearly concerned about potential changes to high country management flagged in a Government discussion document.

The Crown’s partnership with farmers is mentioned in the document, Simpson agrees. “It’s how that partnership evolves. If it’s coming through legislative change then it’s the stick approach and very much from the top-down, which would be disappointing. Partnerships are equal in every respect – it’s what should happen.”

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