John Clark: Cornwall Park leases play vital role in housing market

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The trust board is working with leading local and international landscape architects to develop an exciting 100-year master plan for Cornwall Park. Photo / Natalie Slade
The trust board is working with leading local and international landscape architects to develop an exciting 100-year master plan for Cornwall Park. Photo / Natalie Slade

When Sir John Logan Campbell gifted Cornwall Park to the young city in 1901 he had a vision for a place everyone could enjoy.

One hundred and twelve years on, even he might be surprised by how thoroughly Aucklanders have embraced the park.

More than four million people visit it every year to enjoy its rolling lawns and paddocks (on what was once volcanic farmland), to run, cycle or play sports at one of the several clubs who call it home. It would be rare to to meet an Aucklander who has never had a picnic here. It is also home to 31 bird species.

Perhaps less widely known and understood is the way the park's founder also ensured it would be a gift that kept on giving.

To run the park costs $3.8 million a year, which includes salaries for more than 20 staff who care for the park and farm the 150 Simmental cattle and 600 sheep who live there.

That's less than $1 per visitor. But not one cent has ever been paid from rates or taxes.

When he gifted the park to the city, Sir John also set aside land along its fringes from which the Cornwall Park Trust Board derives ground lease rentals.

This is a critical income stream which keeps the park running.

His foresight has served the park well. Although as Brian Rudman noted in a recent column, the park's ground leasing system also comes under periodic challenge.

The leases are fairly straightforward. For substantially less than freehold value, the lessee gains the right to live on a property in perpetuity while also paying an agreed ground rent. This rent is fixed for 21 years so does reflect increasing land values or inflation. During this time some leases are in fact bought and sold many times. People buy these leases for considerably less than what other properties in the area sell for. That's mainly due to the fact they pay for the house, not the land.

The trust board does not set the ground rent. Property values are independently assessed and as required by the lease the rents are set at the rate of 5 per cent of current land market values.

The trust is currently nearing the end of another round of 21-year renewals for some of the leases.

We are pleased to say that the great majority of leases have been renewed and rent has been set, reflecting perhaps the fact that rises over 21 years in Auckland land values have been well known. But given that rents had not previously moved for over two decades some lessees have found the jump to current values hard to manage.

We believe the leases are fair and transparent and that they can provide significant benefits to both parties. They allow people to live in one of Auckland's most sought after suburbs and buy homes at a heavily reduced price. The flipside is they have to pay a rental for the land, every year.

None of this, however, is to ignore the pressures some people face or the need to constantly review market circumstances. Wherever possible, we work with lessees who face difficulties to try to find solutions, such as payment programmes. We believe that ground leases still play a valuable role in Auckland's residential market. We also believe that the current lease format has served the trust board and the community well for over 80 years.

That said, times are changing and we are currently considering what arrangements might work best for all involved for the next 80 years or more.

While never forgetting the park's past, the trust's focus is also on its future.

The trust board is working with leading local and international landscape architects to develop an exciting 100-year master plan for Cornwall Park.

As Auckland grows by another million people over the coming 20 years, open spaces like the park will become increasingly scarce.

Our responsibility is to ensure Sir John's vision remains and the people of this great city get to keep enjoying the park without charge for generations to come.

John Clark is chairman of Cornwall Park Trust Board.

- NZ Herald

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