The Bill alters the relationship between lessees and the Crown from a contractual to regulatory basis and will complicate farming activities, High Country Accord Trust chairman Philip Todhunter says.
“Currently we have a contractual agreement with the Crown but that will change to a regulatory relationship, which is a way for the Crown to expand their interest in the lease, taking away the property rights from the lessee.”
By default the commissioner of Crown lands will start from a position of declining consents unless the lessee can prove the farming activity will not harm or damage inherent values.
By prioritising inherent values the Bill alters how the commissioner considers discretionary activity applications from lessees.
That includes requiring consent activities to be considered on their effects and whether an activity is necessary to enable leaseholders to exercise their rights and obligations under the lease.
The commissioner cannot take account of the financial viability of farms or the economic benefits of the activity.
All discretionary consent decisions will be made public.
The Bill ends tenure review, in which pastoral lessees exchange land of conservation value for the right to freehold productive land
That process has seen 302,000ha pass to conservation and 353,000ha made freehold.
There are 171 Crown pastoral leases remaining, covering 1.2 million hectares.
Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage says she wants management of the remaining pastoral leases to be fit for purpose and that means protecting inherent values, being accountable, transparent and meeting Treaty of Waitangi obligations.
“These leases are Crown-owned land.
“Pastoral lessees will still be provided with quiet enjoyment, the perpetual right of renewal of the lease and the right to the pasturage but the Crown owns the inherent values and it’s those values that need to be well managed.
“Some leaseholders have invested heavily in weed and pest control and are farming their livestock sustainably but others are trying to replicate the Canterbury plains with intensive development.”
She rejects claims the Bill alters lessees’ property rights, saying it retains the formula for calculating rent and does not change lessees’ existing rights.
Weed and pest control and planting a post will become permitted activities, burning or clearing indigenous vegetation will continue to be discretionary and be decided by the commissioner while draining or cultivating wetlands will be prohibited.
“This Bill is about ensuring farming in the future is sustainable and protecting the integrity of the brand on which we sell high-quality food and fibre.”
Sage has been criticised for not visiting lessees while the policy was prepared, something she will do as her diary permits.
Sage told Parliament the 2018 review of the Crown pastoral land regulatory system concluded it was too focused on operational considerations and transactions without a clear sense of the outcomes it sought to achieve, she says.
The review said there is little understanding of the accumulative impacts of decisions made by the commissioner.
Todhunter says the changes complicate the consenting process.
“Under the Bill as it stands we’d need to apply for consent to fence off a wetland or waterway and then another consent to put in a new stock water trough so our livestock can have a drink.
“If these changes are brought into law farmers and the commissioner will be strangled in red tape and environmental outcomes will go backwards.”
While Sage says the system for setting rents on pastoral lease land will not change, Todhunter says the Bill provides for that possibility.
Todhunter claims consultation has been poor and the timing of the process disappointing given the financial impact of covid-19 and other proposed changes such as the Resource Management Act, water reform and indigenous biodiversity.
“It shows what Minister Sage and her colleagues really think of the primary sector,” he says.
The Bill will be considered by the Environment Select Committee, a process Sage says shows the issue is not solely about farming. It should take six months to consider.
Political parties can change the members assigned to the committee to reflect their interests, she says.
National agriculture spokesman David Bennett described the Bill as an attack on high-country farmers.
“Excessive and encroaching consent processes will require farmers to undergo tedious bureaucracy in order to complete the most basic tasks.”