On Thursday, Minister for Environment Eugenie Sage made an announcement that New Zealanders had been hoping for. After 20 odd tortured, ill thought out, highly controversial years of the land tenure review process, Ms Sage finally announced its impending demise.
When it started in the 1990’s Land Information New Zealand (L.I.N.Z.) was in a bit of a bind. It wanted – and in many respects needed – to get a host of high country properties worth millions of dollars a piece off its books, no longer being able to be the ideal landlord. So, the Government looked at a process that could discharge responsibility for the land, give the lease holders (farmers)more responsibility, which they were asking for, all the while maintaining access for the public.
The idea sounded great – the Government no longer has responsibility for land it could not really manage; the farmers who are the leaseholders would be given greater control over the land in return for making it accessible to the public as far as farming operations permitted.
But the execution of it was appalling. It quickly became obvious that the Overseas Investment Office did not really know what it was meant to be doing, if anything, in terms of regulating the sales that happened. Little screening was done of potential buyers, what they intended to do with it and how suitable as non New Zealanders they were to be in possession of some of New Zealand’s finest farm real estate.
Farmers became frustrated because the sale of properties to buyers became mired in politics. There were several high profile cases with a variety of controversies attached. They include the sale and resale of land in the Mackenzie Basin which became the subject of intensive dairying (and equally intense controversy about the spoiling of high country charateristics with false greenery in a naturally arid area). Another was the sale of the large Lillybank station near Mt Cook, which was bought of Tommy Suharto, the son of Indonesian dictator Suharto. Mr Suharto’s business partner bought a station that Mr Suharto had spent $7.5 million in 1992 purchasing.
Access campaigners also became concerned. Much of the high country farmland had access routes to key camping areas, fishing spots and tramping routes. Many of those who succeeded in deals to purchase such farms often give no hint as to whether they would permit the access to these spots to continue, or recognize the Queens chain. Some were also concerned that those spots would become degraded by non compliant land use.
Many of these concerns were well founded. Some of the buyers indicated little interest in the well being of the communities nearby or for the conservation values held by New Zealanders. As this stoked resentment it was inevitable that controversy should arise.
In the end, with so many frustrated by the way the tenure review was being carried out, the review found itself with few allies. Except for the very few people who had managed to conduct sales of property and whose finances had done very well out of them, there was little support. 30 leases are still in progress, but one has to ask whether it is appropriate for them to continue given tenure review is now at an end.