Monday, August 13, 2018

Time to end the pastoral lease rort

Stuff had a story yesterday of another South Island farmer whining about the government imposing access over "his" leased high country land. In this case, the Commissioner of Crown Lands had imposed an easement to allow a nearby camping ground to access its water pipes and tanks, formalising a 50 year old status quo, and compensated the leaseholder as required by law. Its entirely within the terms of the lease; the problem is that the farmer has mistaken their right of temporary occupancy for real ownership, just like foreign sexual harasser Matt Lauer.

But underlying this is a bigger problem: the entire crown pastoral lease system is a giant rort. Under the lease system, farmers are practically given South Island land. They have leases on 33 year terms, permanently renewable, and they pay average rents of less than a dollar per hectare per year. While I can't find Totara Peak Station in LINZ's database, Black Forest on the other side of the lake from them pays $1830 a year for 7942 hectares - or 23 cents a hectare. If you apply that rate to Totara peak's reported 4900 hectares, then the whining farmer was probably given two years' rent as compensation. Which seems overly generous given the footprint involved - surely it should be compensated at the same rate that he is paying?

And of course, these nominal rents are a hidden subsidy to our "subsidy free", "independent" farmers, which should be removed just on principle.

As for what to do about it, the Crown Pastoral Land Act 1998 needs to be replaced. The new law needs to start from the position that high country land is public land, held for public purposes, and that farmers are just temporary occupants. It needs to have much shorter terms, and the power for the government to remove land from the lease or impose easements (with an appropriate reduction in rent) where it is needed for public purposes such as conservation, recreation, or public access. And above all, it needs to impose commercial rents, and remove the corrupt process of tenure review, which has seen farmers handed millions for giving up the rights of their dollar-a-hectare leases.

Obviously, shifting to the new system will require a transition period. It could be done as leases expire, but in the case of leases which have not changed hands, then it could be done much quicker. People who have recently purchased a lease have a legitimate expectation about its terms. People who have leached off the public for decades already have had more than enough time. And if they don't like the new terms, they're welcome to move their polluting farming operation elsewhere.