Whanganui District Council will make good on former mayor Michael Laws' promise to return sensitive lands near the airport to iwi, current Mayor Hamish McDouall says.

Laws made the promise in 2010, when the council bought Whanganui's port from River City Port.

At the signing of the agreement in principle on lower Whanganui River land claims at Pūtiki Marae on August 30, McDouall said honouring the promise would be a return to an old value - honesty.

At the signing, Whanganui Land Settlement Negotiation Trust (WLSNT) chairman Ken Mair talked of a Whanganui whakataukī (saying) about the values iwi want to share in a new relationship with non-Māori.

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The saying is "Toitu te kupu! Toitu te mana! Toitu te whenua!"

Toitu te kupu is about integrity and keeping one's word. McDouall intends the council to do so and said the land to be returned was a sensitive strip along South Spit, plus more hectares in the hills behind the airport.

Toitu te mana is about people's relationship to each other and to land, WLSNT communications co-ordinator Kahurangi Simon said.

McDouall said better decisions would be made by engaging with iwi as early as possible and working together throughout the process.

"We are all working together so why wouldn't we look at tenant-in-common for Queen's Park/Pukenamu?"

Toitu te whenua is about the connection between people and land - the metaphysical as well as the physical aspects of land.

McDouall said European settlers and the generations that followed had not looked after waterways the way iwi would have.

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall
Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall

He's been talking to Mair over the past two years about co-management of lakes like Virginia/Rotokawau and Wiritoa.

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As well as financial and material redress, the agreement in principle asks non-Māori to enter a new era where those Māori values are honoured.

"Our ancestors bought into a relationship where we could work together for the betterment of us all," Simon said.

"We believe that we can provide some good solutions. We are not really thinking just about ourselves. We are thinking about the greater good for all."

He envisaged iwi taking part in decisionmaking by some mechanism additional to being elected as councillors - perhaps through a post-settlement governance entity.

The settlement legislation would also set out that "Whanganui" is the only correct spelling for the river, district and town - but Simon said iwi won't be picky about it.

"It's not like we are going to have the police out there saying you have to spell it in a particular way."

The agreement in principle was not legally binding and there was more negotiation to come to decide the details of the settlement. It would not include decisions about land in Whanganui National Park, which would be dealt with separately.

Negotiations take place about every two weeks, in either Whanganui or Wellington, with about five people from Whanganui Iwi there to support the chairman.

A draft deed of settlement could be ready in six to 12 months. It would need to be approved by the people WLSNT represents.