Bill may be solution to 'festering' land issue

Waitara leasehold land has been a contentious issue that has "festered" for decades and it may soon be before Parliament again.

When Te Atiawa refused the land in its Treaty settlement earlier this month the New Plymouth District Council was left in nearly the exact same position it was in 1989, when it put a bill before Parliament to be able to freehold the land.

The Government at the time raised concerns and asked the council to reach a solution with Te Atiawa instead of aiming to freehold the 769 sections.

Since then the council had continued to do everything the Crown has asked, council chief executive Barbara McKerrow said.

"Back then we said, ‘OK, fair enough, we will stop in our tracks, we will at your request look at the issue'," she said.

"We went through extensive consultation, we made a decision and we defended that decision in the courts over the last 10 years."

Despite Te Atiawa refusing the land the Crown is now set to pass legislation that would create a pathway for the iwi to purchase it at a future date.

The legislation will include the stipulation that regulations that have restricted the council since it was given the land in the 1940s would be lifted only if the land was sold to the iwi.

McKerrow said the regulations were no longer relevant as they basically restricted the council to using any of the rental income or sale proceeds for the prevention of erosion at Waitara River.

"In 2004 one of the reasons we did it is because it would address a number of things," she said. "It would address Te Atiawa's desire and their historical claim, it would ensure fair market value, lessee rights would be preserved and the land would be free of all statutory trust restrictions so that we could then address the wider wellbeing of the Waitara community that has had to deal with this festering issue all these years."

It would have been an elegant solution had it worked, but it didn't and the council had been left in "no man's land", McKerrow said.

"It may be something Te Atiawa is happy with, and we do not want to undermine their opportunity, it's just that what say it never happens? We are stuck with what we've got now, which is not good enough for our community."

In light of the Crown's decision to legislate Te Atiawa's future opportunity and remove the regulations only if the council sold to the iwi, the council is moving to put another bill up before Parliament.

Tomorrow the full council will meet to decide if it will put a bill to Parliament which calls for all of the restrictions to be lifted, regardless of who owns the land, or who it may be sold to in future.

The bill would be jointly promoted by the council and the Taranaki Regional Council, which is the successor of the Waitara Harbour Board and as such has an entitlement to surplus funds under the Waitara Harbours Act 1940.

Full passage through all stages of the House is not a prospect in 2014, but could be completed in 2015, which would be well ahead of the Te Atiawa settlement legislation.

McKerrow said the council had made no decisions about the future of the land, and any proposal would involve extensive consultation with the leaseholders, Te Atiawa, the wider Waitara community and the TRC.

But until the future of the bill was known any suggestion or hope for the endowment land was just speculation, McKerrow said.

If the bill passed and the council decided to sell the land to anyone other than Te Atiawa, a Treaty negotiator could not step in and stop the sale, as had been previously understood, she said.

While the council would be obligated to notify ministers of a proposed sale, ministers did not have any power to stop any sale or exchange.

Mayor Andrew Judd said the full council needed to carefully consider its options.

"The question that needs to be asked is if we should try to remove the statutory trusts and restrictions from all the income and sale proceeds, no matter who we sell the land to, so that every dollar we get from the land can be used for the betterment of the entire Waitara community," Judd said.

Once the full implications of the Deed of Settlement have been clarified, McKerrow will prepare a comprehensive report about the issues and the options for the Waitara endowment lands.

Taranaki Daily News