Crown pastoral land: LINZ explains everything

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.