Cubicle dairy farming: Labour’s legacy

Two of the three sites for which cubicle dairy farms are proposed were formerly Crown pastoral land, made freehold by the Clark government

When we think of Helen Clark in her former Prime Ministerial capacity, we might recall her on her holidays, hiking and skiing somewhere, with or without sundry members of the Labour caucus. We know how much Labour MPs love wild New Zealand, and love to remind us of it, so the truth about cubicle dairy farming is ... inconvenient.

Labour MP Brendan Burns says he spent a bit of his holidays boning up on the cubicle dairy farming proposals, down in the McKenzie Basin. However, his caucus colleagues know two of the sites quite well because, on 30 May 2003 and 3 April 2006, on Labour’s watch, these former pieces of Crown pastoral land were made freehold, under the Land Information New Zealand (LINZ)-administered process of tenure review.

Cubicle dairy farming resource consent applications have been made in respect of three locations: Ohau Downs (Five Rivers Ltd), Glen Eyrie Downs (Southdown Holdings Ltd), and Killermont Run (Williamson Holdings Ltd). The applicants have already obtained some key consents. The government is considering whether to call in the remaining proposals. I blogged here and here about some reasons they might do that.

The three proposed sites are mapped here, by the Waitaki District Council, to support a description of the applications.

Glen Eyrie Downs and Killermont Run were formerly Crown pastoral land. (Ohau Downs, seems not to have had that level of protection, notwithstanding its close proximity to Lake Ohau.) You can see Glen Eyrie Downs here on LINZ’s Crown pastoral land maps (bottom right, labelled Quailburn). Killermont is here (top right), with Glen Eyrie Downs again (unlabelled).

Of course, on those maps you have to squint. These ones, that show the results of the tenure reviews, are rather clearer: Quailburn here and Killermont here. The parts marked in green on the maps were made over, freehold; the parts marked in pink were restored to Crown ownership and control as conservation areas. The green areas bear an uncanny resemblance to those that are now the subject of Southdown Holdings' and Williamson Holdings’ cubicle dairy farming applications.

The tenure review process is governed by the Crown Pastoral Land Act 1998. It’s a trade off: pastoral lease holders, who would otherwise have had exclusive pastoral farming rights and a perpetual right of renewal, restore some land to Crown ownership for conservation purposes; in return, they get freehold title to the remainder, with or without conditions. It comes at a cost to both parties, over and above any financial cost: the farmer loses land; the Crown gives up its right to manage what has been relinquished.

But the Crown need not give up its rights entirely, and it’s not at all clear from the terms of the Act that it should. The Act puts a heavy emphasis on ecological sustainability. The objects of the tenure review process are said to be:

  1. To promote the management of reviewable land in a way that is ecologically sustainable.
  2. To enable reviewable land capable of economic use to be freed from the management constraints resulting from its tenure, but only subject to that first objective.


While land is Crown pastoral land, consent is required for farming activities (cultivating, cropping, top dressing, burning off, and so on). Upon tenure review, the Act provides for ongoing protective mechanisms, for example under sections 40 and 97, to protect any significant inherent value of the land concerned, or its management in a way that is ecologically sustainable.

Here are the substantive proposals adopted by LINZ for Quailburn and Killermont. They were subject to only basic constraints – nothing of the above kind in either case. We’re seeing the results of that now.

Calling this Labour’s legacy is a bit mischievous, I daresay, but not totally facetious. It’s mischievous because these tenure review proposals were publicly notified and open to submissions; they were probably hard fought negotiations, and probably trade offs were made in what was believed at the time to be the public interest; and hindsight is a fine cliche. Nor is tenure review a direct Ministerial decision. The Commissioner for Crown Lands (who delegates to LINZ) is responsible, which distances Ministers from the process.

However, Ministers responsible for Conservation and LINZ do comment on individual reviews, as David Parker notes in this press release, and even so, we had a lot of this kind of thing from he and Chris Carter over the years, taking full credit for the conservation gains of the tenure review process. It’s relevant that their government gave quite a lot away, as well – in some ill-starred decision-making, as it turns out.