No sale - hands off our land, say most Kiwis

JAMIE SMALL AND MICHAEL FOX
Last updated 05:00 16/08/2014

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An overwhelming majority of Kiwis want the Government to clamp down on the sale of farmland to foreign investors.

The latest Stuff.co.nz/Ipsos poll suggests three-quarters of voters say it should be made harder for foreign investors to buy large tracts of farmland, while just under a quarter say it should not.

But opinion was more evenly divided over whether too much farmland had already passed into foreign ownership, with 52 per cent agreeing and 41 per cent disagreeing.

However, a majority of people questioned for the poll also thought foreign investment benefited New Zealand's economy.

Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, who thrust foreign investment back into the spotlight by revealing that the 13,800-hectare Lochinver Station near Taupo was being sold to Chinese buyers, is also promising further revelations relating to land sales.

Opposition parties have hurled themselves into the debate, warning that vast tracts of land - as much as 1 million hectares - have been sold off under National, which has not blocked a farm sale since a change to Overseas Investment Office guidelines in 2010.

But the Government has defended the sales, and the controversy has failed to make a dent in its popularity - National is on 55.1 per cent in our latest poll, to Labour's 22.5 per cent.

The poll of 1000 eligible voters shows 74 per cent want to make it harder for foreign investors to buy large tracts of farmland, compared with 23.6 per cent opposed.

Labour voters were more likely to favour restrictions, at 84.5 per cent, with National voters 64 per cent in favour.

Craig said the fact that opinion was divided over how much had been sold showed people were unaware of the scale "otherwise I think there would be real concern".

" . . . we broke the Lochinver story . . . because we believed it did matter to New Zealanders and we did want it in the election debate and we're pretty convinced that this will be a mark against National and also, to be fair, Labour."

Craig said he would release further information relating to land sales but did not elaborate.

Labour's economic development spokesman, David Parker, said New Zealanders distinguished between foreign investment, which helped create jobs, and the sale of land.

"They know that there's no great economic sacrifice made by not selling land to overseas people, they have this unease [about] . . . selling something that we can't get back."

Labour would almost completely restrict the sale of rural land if elected.

A spokeswoman for Prime Minister John Key said the Government's "best estimates" were that only 1-2 per cent of New Zealand's productive farmland was owned by foreign investors.

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"Under National, investment in sensitive land receives more government scrutiny and more stringent conditions than any other form of foreign investment. That is why we have seen the rate of approvals for sensitive land sales more than halve since National took office."

The spokeswoman said the Government tightened the rules in 2010 - something Labour disputes, saying not a single sale has been blocked since - and would continue to assess whether further change were necessary.

In the past there have been two overseas investments in the Waikato - three Ruapehu district is included.

The total land area for the three investments was 2106.2ha, for a value of $6.1 million.

On September 19 last year, the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) allowed the purchase of 6.5ha of horse farming land at 277 Grasslands Dr, Cambridge.

The buyer was NZ Rural Holdings Ltd, owned by Hong Kong businessman Benedict Nga-Yan Sin.

The OIO decision said: "The Applicant intends to further develop the bloodstock business operated on the property. This is likely to result in new job opportunities, increased exports of race horses from New Zealand and the introduction of additional capital for development purposes."

The sale of the 1403.9ha Pukewai Station in Aria was approved to the French Giannamore family on November 20.

The decision said: "The Applicant intends to take over the farming operation at Pukewai Station and to use it as a support and finishing property for the Applicant's existing farming operation located in the Coromandel Peninsula."

Also on November 20, a sale was approved for 695.9ha of Taumaranui land for the establishment of a redwood forest.

The buyer was The New Zealand Redwood Company, owned by the Soper and Wheeler families of the United States.

National MP Louise Upston said the amount of land sold to overseas investors in the area was nothing to worry about, and sales on the scale of Lochinver Station were rare.

"The reality is that every so often there's a higher-profile property that attracts a bit of attention," she said.

"We did have some concerns when we came into office, and that's why we put stricter measures in place."

Labour MP and candidate for Hamilton West Sue Moroney said overseas investment in the area would take off if decisions were not properly regulated.

"China is growing rapidly, so is India. Our near neighbours have got burgeoning economic growth. And if we aren't clear about what we want from our strategic productive land then we could very quickly find ourselves in the situation where we don't have control over the future of that land."

- Waikato Times

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