All unpaid rates arrears on Māori freehold land will be written off under new legislation to be introduced to Parliament within months.
The announcement was made by Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta on Sunday and greeted by loud cheers from an audience of about 300 at a Kaikohe vineyard, the first event of a packed Waitangi week.
Other announcements yesterday included $30 million in Provincial Growth Fund grants for projects to develop Maori land, of which $6.2m is destined for Northland.
The scrapping of rates arrears is likely to have a big impact in the Far North, where the Far North District Council is owed about $20m in unpaid rates on Māori land.
Most of those rates are on unproductive land which the council has no intention of collecting, and probably couldn't if it wanted to, but as long as the arrears are on the council's books they act as a handbrake on putting the land to commercial use.
Mahuta said the change to the Local Government (Rating) Act would allow councils to write off any rates they consider unrecoverable.
Most rates arrears on Māori freehold land were from non-payment penalties rather than the original rates bills and rates inherited from deceased owners.
''This proposal would give current owners a clean slate so they can start afresh,'' she said.
''Owners will be able to bring proposals to their local council without the fear of having to pay rates arrears before starting any kind of development.''
The real conversation councils wanted to have with Māori land owners was about what they wanted to do with their land and how they might pay rates in the future.
Most of the roughly 1.4 million hectares of Māori freehold land around the country was currently unproductive, she said.
The law change would also make Māori land set aside for conservation, called Ngā Whenua Rāhui kawenata, rates-free. Crown-owned conservation land is already exempt from rates.
The other big announcement, by Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones, was the allocation of the first $30m from the $100m Whenua Māori Investment Fund, which was created last year and draws from the $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund.
Jones said the fund aimed to progress projects which were ready for investment but struggling to get off the ground.
Waima Tohu B Ahu Whenua Trust in South Hokianga, for example, would receive almost $1m for scrub clearing so the land could be developed.
Jones said the funding would ''unleash the economic potential'' of Māori land, boost landowner returns and create jobs.
The Kaikohe event was also Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's first public event in a hectic five-day schedule. Today she is due to unveil a statue of Dame Whina Cooper at Panguru.
The rating law changes will be introduced to Parliament in the first quarter of this year. The changes will also make council policies on Māori land rates consistent around the country.