Saturday, December 2, 2023

Sage softens lease land changes

Neal Wallace
The Government appears to have softened the sharpest edges of proposed changes to the management of pastoral lease land while confirming farming will continue in the South Island high country.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Cabinet paper detailing changes to the Crown Pastoral Lands Act appears to back down on initial proposals that included greater political oversight of the activities of the Commissioner of Crown Lands, traditionally an independent position.

It seems also to accept submissions from farming sectors that lessees have legal rights to pasturage and quiet enjoyment of their land, which would have been compromised by the original recommendations.

Farming groups argued those proposals would fundamentally challenge existing property rights by imposing other activities that would have made pastoral farming subservient.

The paper said “It is important to acknowledge that this is a pastoral farming regulatory system and the proposed changes are not intended to prevent or reduce the amount of pastoral farming activity happening on Crown pastoral land.”

Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage last year proposed changes that attracted more than 3000 submissions.

It included an end to tenure review, where lessees can negotiate to freehold of part of their lease while surrendering areas of conservation value.

That process has, over 21 years, grown the conservation estate by 302,000ha and enabled another 345,000ha to become freehold.

The Crown is still landlord to 171 lessees who lease about 1.2m hectares of pastoral land over which they have a 33-year terms with perpetual right of renewal.

Lessees have property rights and own improvements such as buildings and fences, fertiliser and soil quality but require discretionary consents from the commissioner to disturb the soil, burn vegetation or increase stock numbers.

The Cabinet paper shifts management from a process-based approach, which the Government says delivers discrete decisions and actions, to an outcome-based approach that considers cumulative impacts over the whole Crown pastoral estate.

“The changes will encourage leaseholders to undertake pastoral farming activities in a way that reduces their impact on or enhances inherent values so these values are sustained.”

Sage last year said she was responding to public concerns about the management of Crown pastoral land, the tenure review process and the loss of biodiversity and landscape values.

The changes increase the protection of significant inherent values on pastoral leases by establishing classes of activity for discretionary consents that reflect the impact of activities on inherent ecological, landscape, cultural, heritage and scientific values.

Weed and pest control will be a permitted activity but soil disturbance, oversowing and topdressing will require consent.

A prohibited list will be created and include activities such as draining and cultivating natural wetlands.

Previously, commissioners considered consent applications by balancing the desirability of protecting inherent values against the desirability of making it easier to farm the land.

The commissioner will be required to seek more expert advice from the Department of Conservation than is done now when considering consent applications. 

Sage is also increasing transparency by publishing the commissioner’s consent decisions including their rationale and every three years requiring the publication of the office’s strategic intention, which requires ministerial approval.

The rent-setting process is outside the scope of the changes but applications for discretionary consents for burning, cultivation, oversowing and topdressing will incur charges based on cost recovery.

Monitoring and enforcement of activities will also be strengthened, including enabling the Crown to take remedial action and recover costs where a breach is identified.

It also establishes an alternative to court proceedings for a breach, allowing a leaseholder to agree to actions in exchange for Land Information NZ not proceeding with charges.

Similarly, it also introduces an administrative penalty for an activity done without consent.

The changes also allow the commissioner to have an advocacy role, providing comment or input into processes and decisions that might impact their role as representing the Crown as the landowner.

The proposals will be introduced to Parliament in the next few months then sent to a select committee.

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