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Freedom Camping Act 2011 and unintended consequences

Regarding the Freedom Camping Act 2011 and unintended consequences

An open letter to Rt Hon John Key, Minister of Tourism, New Zealand regarding the freedom camping act 2011 and unintended consequences including high court challenge of Thames Coromandel District Council by the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association

Rt Hon John Key
Minister of Tourism
New Zealand

Dear Sir,

Regarding the Freedom Camping Act 2011 and unintended consequences.

The freedom camping act was established largely at the behest of local bodies that found themselves powerless to control overnight camping in their districts. Media reports of unsuitable behaviour (defecation, littering & theft) were becoming more frequent and there was a clear indication from the Tourism Industry, Councils and residents that this new and growing trend was not good for tourism and not good for New Zealand.

The Minister for the environment recognised the need for control to be established and aimed to do so before the Rugby World Cup.

It may be that this timeline led to what has proven to be some unfortunate consequences.

It is important to recognise that there was very little authorised so called freedom camping before the act. Most ratepayers throughout NZ objected to subsidising these visitors, and councils actions and bylaws reflected that attitude, by way of their request for legislation to control so called freedom camping. While some (Gisborne) councils had in place management schemes, in others (Thames) request for service statistics show complaints concerning freedom camping to be the single most frequent reason for the call.

Secondly, proponents of unlimited freedom camping are want to point out that they have “always done it” and it is “our birthright”. Sadly, the “always done it” part is in a way correct, but the real truth of that statement is that it has also always upset those affected. Until the 1970’s every summer holiday saw hundreds, if not thousands of holiday makers “freedom camping” along the coast of the Bay of Plenty from Opotiki to Waihou Bay. This wasn’t a “birthright” as so many claim, this was trespass, pollution and desecration of wahi tapu sites. As soon as these locals found themselves sufficiently empowered, the practice was stopped.

Thirdly, in the 1960s when so many of today’s camper vanners were growing up, freedom camping was a Christmas holiday issue and the numbers small and even then it caused problems.
Now, NZMCA claim the national campervan fleet is 34,966 registered motor caravans in New Zealand and with approximately 1000 new vans entering the market each year the issue is suddenly neither small nor harmless. In New Zealand, we know how to make our vehicles last! The old motorhomes are not exiting the fleet anywhere nearly as fast as the rental companies are selling off their surplus fleet. What was once a small problem that councils either endured of controlled has ballooned to the point that it stresses infrastructure and overwhelms resources. The amount of commercial accommodation be it fixed beds or camp sites a region provides in not decided by accident. If an area could support an enlarged tourist presence, the facilities would have long ago been there.

The “We use nothing” war cry of the self contained campervan doesn’t hold water. (At least not as much as their tanks do!) It is the ratepayers, including the businesses operating on tourist dollars that fund the local council. It is they that pay for the roads, footpaths, rubbish collection, sewerage treatment etc. For a few visitors that may be bearable, but, with current and growing numbers this burden becomes very high, more so in those regions with a small ratepayer base. These are also often the prime locations that freedom campers seek, with beautiful beaches, pristine rivers and stunning forests.

The very existence of the term “Freedom camping” has promulgated a culture of entitlement that NZ tourism doesn’t need. The freedom camping act should have stopped or severely curtailed the so called sleeper vans. These are non self contained vehicles that infest the country and were a major cause of the rush to enact legislation. However, it hasn’t done the work is was meant to. This is because the idea has been generated that in NZ “Freedom camping” is an accepted practice. These vans are touring the country in their thousands every year. They may in places have been driven more undercover, but they are still there. Tourism and NZ are suffering from these low yield customers. They don’t pay for accommodation, they travel the country enjoying only the free attractions and at the end of the New Zealand visit they sell the van and spend all the money in Fiji, Rarotonga or Thailand on the way home.

1 Visitor spending has declined. For years the tourism industry has worked with Tourism NZ to increase the yield from tourists. To attract better spending clients rather than being part of a desperate grasp just to increase visitor numbers in competition with every other destination in the world. Tourism NZ has told us this is the way to go. To relieve the strain on finite resources and infrastructure we need to offer superior experiences in order to attract a better yield. The Holiday Park industry has been a major investor in this endeavour, and it is they that have directed our largest group of international tourists to the attractions and activities that encouraged longer higher yielding stays. Yet, in 2011 we made it acceptable to bypass this resource. One of the rental fleets responses to hard times has been to encourage freedom camping; to save their clients money. They are in effect saying come to NZ and spend less and that is exactly what is happening. Spending is not transferring from accommodation to other fields, as the clients “free” attracts are the budget whose aim is to spend as little as possible. So much for twenty years of endeavour to improve our tourist product.

2 What is a problem today bodes even worse for the future. As the motorhome fleet ages, they will become cheaper and thereby more accessible to even more of the New Zealand population. The way today’s legislation stands, our seashore, lakefronts and riversides are about to become the cheap housing of the future. We need look no further than the north of England where supermarket car park entrances are barred to stop entrance to high vehicles, solely to prevent waking up and finding a mobile Village in residence the next morning.

3 Legislation was sought by local bodies and the tourist industry to control camping outside commercial holiday parks. Local councils work on behalf of their communities, and represent their needs and wants. Councils wanted a tool to control freedom camping as their communities wanted. The freedom camping act 2011 gave them the ability to fine, but reversed the councils position of allowed where permitted to allowed except where prohibited. This change in the legislation followed intense lobbying by several well resourced organisations and not a little scaremongering.

4 Councils have since taken various positions to make the best of this difficult legislation. Some have embraced freedom camping in the hope of economic boom, and some have attempted to fulfil the wishes of the bulk of their constituents and control the practice. Sadly, when a Council has attempted to use this legislation to meet needs it has been threatened with legal action by the NZ Motor Caravan Association. In association with Chen Palmer the NZMCA have promulgated and distributed their interpretation of the legislation and how it should be interpreted to their best advantage. Their opinion that their wish should override elected councils is no better than supermarket challenging Council decisions on liquor licensing hours. It is bullying and nothing else. How do councils justify to their ratepayers the expense of fighting the enormously wealthy NZMCA supported by Chen Palmer in the high court?

5 Is this the New Zealand we really want? Our incredible scenic vistas to be punctuated with clotheslines of washing. We are no longer three million people with lots of room. The unspoilt is becoming harder to find and looking after it has become harder to do. Our councils do their best. Development is regulated. Aesthetics and safety are closely monitored, yet the NZMCA’s interpretation for the freedom camping act seeks to put themselves above all that.

6 There is a simple solution. The legislation should be changed. Re-name it the “Overnight stays in public places act 2014” Instead of “Freedom camping is permitted in any local authority area unless it is restricted or prohibited in an area it should be changed to Overnight camping is NOT permitted in any local authority area unless it is specifically allowed­ from that start point other controls could remain as in “ Bylaws must not absolutely prohibit overnight camping: etc but councils must be allowed the autonomy to make their own decisions on scale and location rather than be dictated to. This new mindset will put us back on path to a sustainable improvement of out valuable tourist industry.

7 Attached below is an excerpt from the NZMCA newsletter which encourages its members to attend in bulk their High Court challenge of the TCDC freedom camping bylaw. This is arrogant intimidation of both our council and the court and I request you as the Minister of Tourism intervene lest this travesty proceed.

Yours faithfully

Geoff Hawthorn
Dickson Holiday Park


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