Land Information New Zealand is a bit of a misnomer: the information, when I asked them for it, seemed in short supply. But inadvertently, they explained quite a lot

“Tenure review of Crown pastoral leases … is the largest single process for the assessment and alienation of Crown-owned land in New Zealand,” Cabinet was told in 2009.

A candid admission; and since they clearly grasp its significance, I expected Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) to have something equally candid to say about how it is working. I mean, it’s important, right? So I wrote to them:

Under section 12 of the Official Information Act, I would like to request copies of all information and advice received or given by LINZ since the 2008 election, addressing the following issues …

The list of issues included:

  • impacts (positive or negative) of tenure review on former Crown pastoral landscape, biodiversity, ecology, or amenity values
  • what assessments, if any, are made in the tenure review process, of the likelihood of future use of the land for farming practices, for which consent would have needed to be sought while Crown pastoral land?
  • how often and what kind of protective mechanisms are imposed under the Act, to address the matters specified in the Act (such as ecological sustainability and significant inherent values)?
  • any other government or LINZ policies or practices to mitigate or avoid damaging impacts to former Crown pastoral land, post-tenure review

LINZ replied:

The Crown Pastoral Land Act … does not allow decision makers to take into account future use of land that is freeholded as a result of tenure review. Use of freehold land as a result of tenure review is a matter for regional and district planning processes under the Resource Management Act … The outcomes for the CPLA … are about land tenure (land becoming freehold or conservation land) … .

The outcomes for the CPLA are set out in the CPLA. Its first purpose is reviewing tenure and determining how land should be dealt with; its other purpose is administration of Crown pastoral land.

For tenure review, it sets out and ranks the objects: promoting ecologically sustainable management is the top one; and protecting significant inherent values, by way of protective mechanisms, or restoring full Crown ownership and control, is another. Freeing up useful land, and making its sale easier, are secondary.

How can you decide what actions might be needed, to give effect to those statutory goals, without considering possible land uses, and their risks? In other words, if there is a real risk of highly damaging management, one might need to intervene, somehow, to promote ecological sustainability, as required. And plainly, it is not just about “land becoming freehold or conservation land”: there are options in-between.

LINZ offered no response, at all, on the impacts (positive or negative) of tenure review on former Crown pastoral land. Nor any response on protective mechanisms, other than to say the Act provides for them, and they are considered in the course of tenure review. I know that it does; that would be why I said, “protective mechanisms … imposed under the Act”. I asked “how often”, and “what kind”.

Extrapolating, I can only assume that there was no information to provide. This would confirm the findings of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE): that protective mechanisms are vanishingly infrequently used, and there is no proper assessment of the outcomes.

On government or LINZ policies to mitigate or avoid damaging impacts to former Crown pastoral land: “The government’s end outcome for Crown pastoral land is that Crown pastoral land is put to the best use for New Zealand. During the consultation process views of affected parties are considered”.

Cabinet decided this in 2009. The PCE had called for a strategy, to assess and manage the cumulative consequences of individual pastoral land management and tenure review decisions. Cabinet gave a nod to this, while noting that the government was yet to formally respond (and still, I understand, hasn’t done so):

As the Crown is likely to be a long term owner and administrator of pastoral land, developing a strategic approach would provide a clear direction for how the government wishes its land to be managed and how the tenure review process would be carried out. The paper proposes a Strategic Direction [love the capitals] … The proposed wording of an End Outcome is Crown pastoral land is put to the best use for New Zealand.

Beneath that, it set three objectives — stewardship, economic use, and relationships. Stewardship refers to promoting ecologically sustainable management, and protecting pastoral and inherent values, including the natural character of lakesides and landscapes. Economic use is about promoting the contribution of Crown pastoral land to the New Zealand economy. Relationships is about relationships.

I venture this is not quite what the PCE meant, by a strategy. She wanted a way to bring the big picture to bear on individual decision-making.

I further venture that the Cabinet paper, in failing to prioritise outcomes quite as precisely as the Act (which is very precise on this point), might risk subverting its purpose, just a little bit. It would be important, at least, to remember that the official Strategic Direction has to be read in the light of the Act, and subject to it.

I also wrote to LINZ’s Minister, Maurice Williamson:

In the light of your colleague Nick Smith’s earlier comments, around the time of the called-in cubicle dairy applications, about the iconic and fragile nature of the Mackenzie country, I wondered what policy initiatives this government is progressing to ensure the Mackenzie and its landscapes are properly protected, and retain their essential character. In particular, in your portfolio, how are Crown pastoral land, and the tenure review of that land, being managed to optimise these outcomes? And what, if anything, is being done to respond to the PCE’s recommendations in her “Change in the high country” report?

The response, from the Minister's office, was succinct:

The Minister of Conservation is responsible for the protection of the values of concern to you and the Department of Conservation provides the related key inputs into the tenure review process administered by Land Information New Zealand. Accordingly, your correspondence has been transferred to Hon Kate Wilkinson, Minister of Conservation for her consideration and response.

I’m looking forward to hearing from Mrs Wilkinson, and also Dr Smith. But it is LINZ that administers the Crown Pastoral Land Act; LINZ that services the tenure review process and the Commissioner for Crown Lands (who is the decision-maker); and ultimately LINZ that therefore leads in giving effect to the Act.

LINZ’s Minister ought to be able to speak with some authority on how Crown pastoral land, and the tenure review of that land, are being managed to properly protect the Mackenzie country; and how the government is responding to recommendations, some of which were specifically about his and his agency’s functions.

In fact, LINZ and Mr Williamson seem not very interested in the process at all, taking a determinedly hands-off approach. And that sheds a new light on the PCE’s High Country Commission recommendation. Faced with the kind of dumb incomprehension displayed in LINZ’s letters to me, one might well conclude that the culture change required to fix the problems would be too big an ask.

Comments (5)

by Simon on July 29, 2010
Simon

Calire, Maurice Williamson's reply to your letter is a classic - for all the wrong reasons! It should be framed. Talk about "never mind the statutory objectives - lets just do what we have always done".

by Claire Browning on July 30, 2010
Claire Browning

Simon, I should have made clear, and have corrected it now, that the response was from the Minister's office, not Mr Williamson personally. But otherwise, yes -- and I hadn't even shared with you the most classic part!

After the bit I quoted, the email continues (and concludes): "In due course, a copy of your email and her [Kate Wilkinson's] response will be put before Hon Williamson for his information."

To be fair, I imagine this was supposed to be a reassurance, that my very important correspondence wouldn't be overlooked in high places.

But for his information? I mean, being the man holding the portfolio, he knows all this stuff inside out and backwards ... doesn't he? And never mind the clear terms of the Act: all this limp-wristed conservation-y ecological-type waffle is, apparently, somebody else's problem.

It was that, that was the last straw. I've had the OIA response-letter for a few weeks, waiting to present a full picture in the light of what Nick Smith might say (I wrote to him on June 24) -- and Kate Wilkinson too, because it is quite right DOC is closely involved in tenure review, assessing stewardship matters. But screw the full picture -- it will evolve, in due course, and I'm fairly confident insofar as LINZ is concerned this isn't an unfair one.

by Claire Browning on August 03, 2010
Claire Browning

An hour or so ago, South Island High Country Ministers (LINZ, Conservation, Agriculture) announced a new method for setting Crown pastoral lease rents, based on the earning capacity of a property. This had been signalled in their 2009 decisions.

Earlier, I posted at some length about Crown pastoral land management. Specifically — notwithstanding the Crown Pastoral Land Act’s consent requirement, to a long list of pastoral activities, signalling the fragility and importance of this environment; and a requirement to consult with DOC; and to take into account the desirability of protecting ecosystems and landscapes — the Act gives only weak protection. LINZ (via the Commissioner for Crown Lands) must also take into account the desirability of making it easier to farm the land, and the Act does not address irrigation at all. Some land management practices, such as burning off, are damaging.

Along with the rents, dealt with today, other work categorised in 2009 as ‘phase two’ included:

  • review the PCE’s 2009 ‘Change in the high country’ report;
  • investigate options for initiatives that recognise the lessee’s role in stewardship of pastoral land, including potential for greater use of covenants;
  • fuel build up and grant of consent for controlled burn-off on pastoral land.

That programme of work sounds as if it would be directed to some of the issues I was posting about.

Arguably, it’s laudable for the government to tackle one thing at a time, and do each of them properly. But equally arguably, today’s announcement is telling in its priorities. It's all about the money: the economic side of the transaction, not the environment. It is true that rent-setting based on the earning capacity of a property, rather than its land value, will in some if not all instances mean the return to the Crown is less. Nonetheless, the materials released by Ministers are silent about progress on the other, environmental matters.

by Claire Browning on August 09, 2010
Claire Browning

Earlier this year, when he called in the now notorious cubicle dairy effluent discharge applications, Dr Smith referred to the fragile and iconic nature of the Mackenzie Basin environment, by way of explanation for his view (implicit in the exercise of the call-in power) that this was a proposal of national significance.

He then made remarks to the EDS conference, in which he said it was his ambition to make more progress on National Policy Statements, provided for under the RMA.

A national policy statement was an idea I'd floated here on Pundit in December. I had in mind at the time something general (and impractical) about the place of dairy: must we all pay the price of cows everywhere, when so few reap the rewards, and what can we do to stop it?

But it was picked up by the Greens, EDS, et al, as a possible solution to the Mackenzie problem, and in that context, it works. In other areas with heavy dairy growth pressures -- Southland and Waikato, for example (less sure about Canterbury) -- there's a better fit between the land use and the nature of the country, probably adequately enough regulated by water and animal welfare and the usual consenting process. Whereas development pressure on the Mackenzie is acute, and not particular to dairy; there are a number of development pressures.

National policy statements address environmental matters of national significance, that are relevant to achieving the 'sustainable management' purpose of the RMA. In determining whether to prepare an NPS, the Minister may have regard to a list of factors, at least three of which -- (c), (f) and (g) -- are likely to be engaged in the Mackenzie context.

So in the light of all that, I wrote to Dr Smith:

I wondered what policy initiatives this government is progressing to ensure the Mackenzie and its landscapes are properly protected, and retain their essential character. Are there any such initiatives, and might a national policy statement be one of them?

Last week he replied:

I made the point at the EDS conference that it was my ambition to make progress on national policy statements, including the proposed National Coastal Policy Statement, the proposed NPS on Freshwater, and an NPS on biodiversity. I would like to see more effective use of NPS, because it will assist with more consistent decision making on nationally important issues.

There could be merit in an NPS for landscape protection and management. However, I would prefer that such a proposal was rigorously assessed and analysed against other priorities before a commitment is made. To this end, the government has tasked the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) to look at resource management reforms that will contribute to resource management regulation and processes so that they become more efficient and effective. This includes a forward agenda setting process for national policy instruments including NPS. MfE will be releasing a discussion document in the coming months which will look at a range of policy responses to achieve this.

It is my expectation that the combination of these NPS in conjunction with other resource management reforms being investigated by MfE, will result in greater direction for resource managers.

My email was quite clear in (a) its specific reference to the Mackenzie District, and (b) its question about any initiatives, including but not confined to the possibility of an NPS, the government might have underway to ensure those landscapes are properly protected.

Dr Smith's letter is so much less clear, I'm afraid I'm struggling a bit to understand it. But it seems to offer a lukewarm response on the prospect of an NPS for landscape protection in general, not specific to the Mackenzie; plus forthcoming unspecified resource management reforms to promote efficiency and effectiveness, including progressing future NPS's more expeditiously.

Which leads me to suspect, overall, that the short answer to my question would have been "none".

by Simon on August 14, 2010
Simon

Claire,

Re Nick Smith's opaque but possibly 'lukewarm' response. You are hitting the nail on the head in concluding that the short answer on what Smith (and co) were doing to protect the MacKenzie district was "Nothing".

The only difference in responses between Smith and say, Brownlee, and Williamson's office; appears to be that Smith (or his staff) write a more fullsome jargon-rich load of nonsense in fobbing off public questions.

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