Māori Land & Council Rates

By the end of last year, Gisborne District Council was owed about $3.5m in overdue rates on Maori land. Council recently agreed to the establishment of a working group to focus on the issues relating to Maori land and rates.

As it turns out, central government also has a group working on the issues, as have many governments before the current one. In fact 80 years ago Sir Apirana Ngata and the Prime Minister, George Forbes, established a joint committee to inquire into the question of unpaid rates on Māori land. The committee found significant areas of land had no rateable value and recommended local authorities to remove such areas from valuation rolls. The committee visited a number of the development schemes on Māori land that Ngata had initiated and the members were impressed with the productivity gains generated off these blocks.

These schemes assisted in a wide range of successful cooperatives operating on the East Coast, enabled Māori to retain ownership and created thousands of jobs.

The Waitangi Tribunal suggests that rates “were initially introduced as a tool of local government to meet its own infrastructure needs and those of settlers, rather than in response to what Māori may have wanted.”

Before 1893 the law did not allow Māori land to be sold to cover rating debts and central government reimbursed local authorities for unpaid rates on Māori land (that it turns out had been grossly overvalued). From 1910, nearly all Māori land became rateable unless held under customary title. In 1924, responsibility for rates recovery was shifted to the Māori Land Court. From then on, if arrears accrued against the land, it could be the subject of a charging order by the court, and placed in receivership or trust for lease or sale.

From 1950 to 1970, new legislation extended the powers of the court to force the development of ‘unproductive’ Māori land that had not been able to pay rates. The Waitangi Tribunal has found that a major effect of legislation introduced during this period seems to have been to boost the use of receivership as a means of rates enforcement.

The whole concept of local government rates has its philosophical origin in European legal theory that all land is ultimately held by the Crown. However, in New Zealand the question has persistently arisen in the development of rating law as to whether land not held by the Crown, but rather held by Maori in customary tenure, should be subject to rates. Council’s Whenua Rahui policy recognises this issue to some degree.

Since the 2007 Local Government Rates Inquiry there has been a shift and valuations for rating purposes make some small concession for the complexities of Māori land tenure and specify this on rates demands.

Dr Api Mahuika has advocated establishment of a Ngāti Porou local government district – some of my colleagues might support this proposal given the high cost of maintaining roads across such a large area and the large proportion of unpaid rates coming from the northern part of the district. Of course such a proposal is unlikely to be within the scope of our working group but it seems a similar emphasis on self-determination is the basis of the Tuhoe position on Te Urewera, as it was for Gandhi before Britain quit India. There are myriad examples of semi-autonomous governance arrangements around the world, so hopefully these local questions eventually get the full consideration they deserve.

The new Council working group will meet next month to determine the Terms of Reference and will no doubt welcome key stakeholders in the discussions and potential solutions. Watch this space!

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