Retreat on public access to farmland

By Ruth Berry

The Government has backed down over plans to increase public access to waterways, saying there is "too much conflict" to introduce the legislation now.

The rethink comes as a Herald-DigiPoll survey confirms 60 per cent of voters oppose the plan and will see the Government try to initiate further consultation rounds in an attempt to win greater support.

Associate Rural Affairs Minister Jim Sutton is promising compromises are on the table in exchange for good-faith negotiations.

He has revealed that the Government has agreed in principle to pay compensation for "demonstrable loss of value" for any private land used to open up access to the coast, rivers and lakes - a key sticking point.

He will also consider introducing legislation on a piecemeal basis, beginning with the non-controversial proposals first.

But despite seeking a truce, the disheartened minister - who has battled opposition within his own ranks and who also described the delay as an attempt to encourage supporters to "put their hands up" - lashed out at opponents last night.

He accused Opposition politicians and groups such as Federated Farmers of conducting a campaign of misinformation about the policy and blamed its lack of support on a "new hardness, a new selfishness about society at the moment ...

that doesn't really care much about community interests".

He said it was fashionable to take an extremist view in favour of private property rights at the expense of the protection of public rights.

Yet the public held a different view on the foreshore and seabed legislation - when it endorsed the removal of potential property rights to protect public access to the coast - which suggested a dubious double standard, Mr Sutton said.

To the poll's question "Do you believe the public should be allowed access to rivers and lakes across private farm land?" 33.2 per cent of voters said yes and 60.3 per cent said no.

Mr Sutton said the question was not strictly accurate as access paths across private land would be created only after negotiation and a fund was proposed to be established to pay for the easements.

The Government wanted to extend 5m walking-only access strips along significant waterways to protect access rights to public water.

Despite assertions to the contrary, there was no plan to introduce rights to roam anywhere on private land.

Mr Sutton, who faced an angry farmer protest at Parliament last week, had pledged to introduce the legislation before the election.

But yesterday he said that was now very unlikely as there was "too much angst".

Unveiling but not tabling a bill before the election might similarly be counter-productive.

He could not say when the legislation would now be introduced or in what form. He wanted first to confer on how a consultation process might proceed, a task he would start on immediately.

He said he was not backing down from the Government's objective to extend walking access to waterways, which was being eroded.

"But it's also fair to say there is a point in exercising leadership where you have to say, 'Can we get out in front so far that we break the bond between the people and the Government?' ... and I don't want to do that either. It won't advance the cause at all."

Federated Farmers land access spokesman John Aspinall said last night that the federation welcomed the chance to hold further talks and to proceed on some issues over which there was mutual agreement.

He hoped the Government wasn't simply stalling because of the election but said, "We'll take what the minister said on face value."

National deputy leader Gerry Brownlee said the Government's handling of the issue had been extremely clumsy.

Mr Sutton's assertions the public was misinformed "highlights this Government's attitude, which is that if you don't like it there must be something wrong with you".

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