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Government Turns Up The Heat In The High Country


Government Turns Up The Heat In The High Country

The Government has turned up the heat on farmers in the South Island's iconic tussock grasslands with its announcement that it is examining changing the terms of their leases, so they pay a higher rent.

The move comes in the midst of a bitter battle over the future of the high country. On one side is the Government, with its stated aim of acquiring up to 1.3 million hectares of pastoral lease land to create a network of 22 parks along the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps, and on the other, the farmers who have perpetually renewable rights to graze this land. The High Country Accord, which represents most high country lessees, says the announcement by Lands Minister Pete Hodgson on Friday comes at a time when many farmers are negotiating in good faith with the Crown over the future tenure of their farms.

"The Crown is the only landlord in the country with the power to change the terms of a lease that no longer suits its purpose. But just because it has that power, doesn't make it right," says Accord chairman Donald Aubrey.

"Reviewing the impact of introducing market rentals at this stage in the tenure review process seems inconsistent with good faith negotiation principles.

"We pastoral lessees are paying rentals based on the market value of the land in its most depleted state without any improvements, and subject to a myriad of restrictions on how it may be used (apart from grazing an agreed number of sheep).

"To make an urban analogy, it would be like leasing a gorse-covered section in a town with no right to clear the gorse or right to build a house, with no services laid on such as water, power and sewerage etc. You would have to ask the Crown for permission to undertake any works on the land.

"If you were in this situation, you wouldn't expect your rent to be based on the same formula as a tenant with no restrictions."

Mr Aubrey says the Government is single-mindedly pursuing its goal of creating state-owned and operated parks and reserves in the high country, regardless of its effect on the South Island economy or communities, and without clear evidence that wholesale removal of grazing from the land is likely to achieve its conservation or access goals.

"Recent Cabinet papers warn that 'removal of the forecast amount of land from Merino production will have a significant impact on the Merino industry resulting in a direct annual loss of $33 million to the South Island economy'."

He says farmers who wish to buy out the Crown's interest and freehold their properties should be able to do so without being 'heavied' by their landlord or by the Department of Conservation. Equally, those farmers who want to continue with Crown leasehold tenure, should be able to do so without the Crown unilaterally changing the terms of their leases.

The Accord does not object to Crown Pastoral Lessees paying a fair market rental for their leases provided that proper allowance is made for the constrained bundle of property rights involved, the related uncertainty from the need to seek consents to undertake "discretionary activities", the rationale for the current rental basis and its implications for the Crown's lessor's interest in such leases.

"But talk of market rentals now is at best is questionable timing, and at worst simply a tactic designed to weaken the negotiating position of farmers," he says.

"What we are seeing here, are individual families farming in remote and sometimes quite hostile environments being forced against their will to do battle with the Crown, over what they thought were legally binding water-tight leases.

"The normal word used to describe a one-sided fight, where one of the parties has all the power, is 'bullying'. It's totally unacceptable."

[ends]

BACKGROUND INFO

Crown Pastoral Leases forbid the lessee (the farmer) from doing the follow things without the express permission of the lessor (the Crown).

+ plant any tree or trees on the land + sow any part of the land with seed + crop, cultivate, drain or plough any part of the land + topdress any part of the land + form any path, road or track on the land + undertake any other activity affecting or involving or causing disturbance to the soil (except a garden beside a house). + clear or fell any bush or scrub on the land

In addition, lessees must comply with regional and district plan requirements under the RMA. Only a government-approved person can acquire a lease and then it must remain their principal place of residence. Stock type and numbers are by approval only and must be within set limits. In addition the Crown must approve the transfer (sale) of the lease.

The Crown's financial interest in a pastoral lease property is normally much smaller than that of the farmer-lessee, who owns all the improvements (fertility, pasture, fencing, tracks, water supply, buildings etc).

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