Council criticised for sad leasehold saga

TARYN UTIGER
Last updated 05:00 21/06/2014

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The lengthy saga of the Waitara leasehold land has been labelled a "wild goose chase" by a New Plymouth lawyer.

Dennis King has been the solicitor for the Waitara lessees throughout 10 years of legal battles and has spoken out on the matter after Te Atiawa refused the land in its Treaty settlement this month.

"Why on earth did the council not nail down with Te Atiawa right at the outset whether Te Atiawa was actually going to accept the Waitara freeholds, before expending such large amounts of ratepayers' cash in legal fees on what ultimately became a proverbial wild goose chase," King said.

In 2010 the Taranaki Daily News reported that the New Plymouth District Council had spent $1.85m in legal fees. The Daily News has asked for the latest figures for the legal costs associated with the Waitara endowment lands and the council is expected to release this information next week.

King said the council had already spent vast amounts of ratepayers' money on legal fees to get absolutely nowhere. "The Waitara lessees still haven't got the right to freehold their properties, and the controversy has caused a significant relative decline in the value of their properties compared to comparable freehold properties in Waitara."

It would not be fair to blame the current mayor and councillors, as they had inherited the situation from others, he said.

"Rather this fiasco has all the hallmarks of intervention by bureaucracy, and central government bureaucracy at that."

There were many lessons that could be taken from the poorly handled situation, including the realisation that local authorities should not involve themselves in the redress of historic iwi grievances, King said.

The council had also ignored overwhelming public opinion and it should learn from that mistake, he said.

In 2003 the council called for submissions on their preliminary decision to hold the land for a Treaty settlement, and in the main round of submissions 80 per cent of the submitters favoured either freeholding or the status quo, while only 17 per cent favoured return of the freeholds to Te Atiawa, he said.

The council also ignored promises it had previously made to the lessees, and went against its own assurances that the land could one day be sold to the homeowners.

"Did the council ever stop to consider that the vast majority of the Waitara lessees were fighting for their own homes? Any group of Kiwis who see themselves fighting for their own homes will defend them with the same determination that the Waitara leaseholders have done," King said.

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The situation was a sad saga, and there were no winners in what had become a lengthy battle.

The Waitara endowment land includes approximately 770 properties leased out on various perpetually renewable ground leases and about 86 hectares held by the council as recreation reserves.

- Taranaki Daily News

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