Millions of dollars in rates owed on Māori land could be written off in Northland.
A bill has been passed in Parliament, making a number of changes to the way local authorities rate Māori land, as part of the Government's wider plans to assist Māori landowners in developing their land.
There are currently 4,913 Māori freehold land blocks in Te Tai Tokerau, covering a total area of 135,276 hectares. Around $21.6 million in overdue rates is currently owed to the Far North District Council (FNDC) alone, with current indications that around $20 million of this could be written off, according to the FNDC. The Whangārei District Council and Kaipara District Council are also owed substantial amounts.
Despite the changes being billed as "revolutionary" by some MPs, Māori landowner Rueben Taipari Porter doubts the changes will have much effect, if any.
"I'm not impressed by it [the Bill]. I'm actually concerned about it... It's lacking in consultation with the whānau and hapū that actually live on the land. It never got put through that process," said Taipari Porter.
The Local Government (Rating of Whenua Māori) Amendment Bill was passed into law last Monday. There are several matters addressed in the Bill, which was submitted to Parliament by the Minister of Local Government and Māori Development, Nanaia Mahuta. Most notably, the Bill sees historic rates arrears on unused Māori land automatically removed and no further rates being charged on wholly unused land blocks.
"There is a policy to incentivise the commercial development of Māori Freehold Land," said the FNDC in an exclusive release to The Advocate.
The changes have been made with the aim of enabling Māori landowners to develop unused Māori land. They will only pay rates once the land comes into productive use. It also ensures unused Māori land does not accumulate rates arrears in the future.
"The restrictions and regulations that they're putting in place are archaic and colonial," said Taipari Porter. "It's like we're back in the 1800s... The Council gets to decide whether or not we pay our rates...This isn't Alabama, where some white CEO tells us whether or not we're sovereign on our own land.
"I can't work with it. There's nothing in there that helps me to achieve my goals. The next generation and the youth that are going to inherit this land aren't getting anything that helps them to occupy the land or use it for their personal benefit."
Other changes include local authorities having to write off outstanding rates on any land that they consider unrecoverable, including rates debt inherited from previous owners; Māori landowners being able to apply for rates remission while their land is under development and if the applications are successful, providing some rates relief for Māori landowners while they bring their land into greater use;
All land protected by Ngā Whenua Rāhui being deemed non-rateable and outstanding rates arrears being written off; Māori landowners being able to apply to have multiple Māori land blocks that come from the same parent block to be treated as one rating unit; Upon request, local authorities being able to rate individual houses on Māori land as a separate rating unit. If the houses are chosen to be rated individually, the occupant of the house becomes responsible for the rates on the house, and each homeowner will also have access to the Rates Rebate Scheme.
"When we put a papakāinga on our land, the council will come in and determine the nominal value of that papakāinga using the same process that they would for a property developer in Kerikeri building a million-dollar home, knowing full well that the papakāinga is for my next generation and that no money will be made from it... How do you put us under the same system, knowing that we have totally different objectives and goals?" said Taipari Porter.
There are also changes providing protection to Māori land converted to general land by the Māori Affairs Amendment Act 1967 from being sold as 'abandoned land sales'; Removing the two-hectare limit on the non-rateability for marae and urupā; Extending the non-rateability for marae on all kinds of land, not just those on a Māori reservation; Clarifying the obligations on trustees to declare income received from land if requested to work out rates liability; Clarifying that homes on Māori reservations are liable for rates; Referencing the principles of Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993 in local government rating legislation to signal the intent of the changes.
"We were one of the families that got affected by an Act back in the 1960s that if there were less than four listed owners on the land, it got changed to general title without your knowledge... The only real change I see in the new legislation is marae can now expand beyond two hectares, with the potential to be papakāinga," Taipari Porter said.
The provisions making some land non-rateable, treating individual blocks as one, and creating individual rates accounts for homes come into effect on July 1, 2021. The delay is to allow local authorities the time to research and put in place the necessary systems so that the correct rating treatment can be applied as required. All other substantive provisions will come into force the day after Royal Assent is given to the Bill.
Besides the changes to legislation, there is also a multi-agency whenua Māori unit that has been established to assist Māori landowners with the development of their land. The unit includes representatives from Te Puni Kōkiri, the Māori Land Court, various councils, and several other organisations. While the unit's immediate focus is on helping whenua Māori landowners familiarise themselves with the changes to the rates systems, the unit is also currently developing an expo to be held later in the year that will aim to assist Māori landowners in formalising the management structure of their lands and then developing the land.
Te Puni Kōkiri also launched a new website last year called 'Tupu', developed with Māori to help landowners navigate the complicated journey of whenua Māori ownership. It was also revealed last year that $30 million from the Provincial Growth Fund would be allocated towards assisting Māori landowners to develop their whenua, local communities, and support regional development.
"It's a common sentiment in council chambers to not develop Māori land because they don't pay their rates... With the attitude we have from local and central governments at this particular time, I'd say to Māori landowners, don't pay your rates. Don't pay your rates until you get something for it," said Taipari Porter.