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Canterbury Resource Consent Dilemma

Things have gone wrong in to South Island high country to an extent that is almost impossible for anyone unfamiliar with the advantages that have accrrued to the Canterbury ‘Landed Gentry.' to understand.  This is what has determined outcomes diametrically opposed to what was intended in relation to what has been labelled as ‘high country Tenure Review.

It is a concept so pervasive, and entrenched as to be almost inconceivable to anyone brought up in the more egalitarian North. The Canterbury class system was used to good effect when high country run-holders found that tenure review was a vehicle that could be used to their own advantage while giving the appearance of being ‘guardians of the conservation estate.’ The Government determined that land of ‘high conservation value’ needed to return to predominate native vegetation, often weeds if one were to be totally truthful.  

After initial horror that leases could be overturned in this manner, and once the advantages to be accrued from tenure review became apparent, there was a clamour to ‘get aboard’ before the Government changed its mind. The exchange of hard to work high country leases for ‘free-holded’ lowland was like ‘mana from Heaven’ for these ‘merino kings,’ and who could blame them? The problems now apparent in the McKenzie Basin are the direct result of the free-holding of the previously marginal land now wide open for irrigation that transformed prospects of these suddenly advantaged ex-run-holders.

But another aspect that is of far greater concern is highlighted in an excellent article in this month’s Forest & Bird magazine by Mary Ralston. Mary points out that much of the free-holded lower slopes and flats, despite being farmed for more than 100 years as Crown leases is now being subjected to unprecedented assault with cultivation, earthworks and vegetation removal.

This results from the fact that the RMA that was expected to protect the free-holded land has been totally ineffective in protecting both vegetation and landscapes because the RMA provisions adopted in each district plan varies from district to district causing confusion, and are easily flouted. Consents are required from any conversion over 1,000sqm, and trampling by stock is considered, 'fair game.’ Matagouri flats are soon “nicely flattened by feeding out hay or silage.

Anyone who has recently driven through the Waitaki, South Canterbury and Ashburton hinterland will be incredulous that there have only been eight resource consents issued by the Ashburton District Council since 2005. And currently there is little consequence should a farmer go ahead without a consent and spray significant native vegetation to achieve more productive farmland. We are of course familiar here with the operation of “formal warnings,” and just how effective our enforcement officers are in keeping recalcitrant farmers on the straight and narrow – yesterday’s example on the Piako catchment is a good example.

Mary points out that councils are reluctant to prosecute because "the process is expensive, the burden of proof very high, and it does not want to give a farmer a criminal record." The Ashburton Council relies on the public to report breaches of consents, or non-consented clearing. It is probably only neighbours who would notice, and there is a general reluctance to ‘dob-in,’ let alone provide testimony, which is required.

A recent prosecution resulted in a small fine and no publicity – the landowners and site were not identified. Another example of the Canterbury version of ‘noblese oblige.’ Mary even points out that "the failure to enforce rules may be because of council’s intent to smooth the way for farmers to develop their land as they wish.” But also that there may be lack of recognition on the part of planners and elected councillors of the importance of and value of native vegetation.

Whatever the reason, there appears a deliberate attempt in Canterbury at least to circumvent the Resource Consent legislation. Those who have benefitted from Tenure Review are not regarded as doing anything other than what they are entitled to do. Walls of silence have been erected to protect them across the entire community, and you can be sure that Mary’s is a minority view in the peculiar context of Canterbury society.  

You have to have lived in this sphere to really understand just how the system works. I know because I grew up in it, and know some very nice people who have taken advantage.




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