15 Nov 2019

NZ First-linked forestry company wanted $95m in govt funding

5:02 pm on 15 November 2019

A forestry company with close links to New Zealand First planned to apply for nearly $100 million under the One Billion Trees programme, which is overseen by the Forestry Minister Shane Jones.

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Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Under the proposal, NZ Future Forest Products Limited wanted the government to be a joint shareholder in a company that would buy livestock farms in the Bay of Plenty, East Cape and Northland to convert into pine forest.

The directors of the company include Brian Henry, the lawyer for Winston Peters and judicial officer of New Zealand First, and Mr Henry's son David Henry.

Jan Trotman, who is the partner of the New Zealand First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Mr Peters, is also a director of the company, although she was appointed a few days after the bid was turned down.

RNZ has already revealed that the company spent six months discussing an application for at least $1m from the Provincial Growth Fund with officials before it was finally turned down by Labour ministers on 7 November.

Documents released under the Official Information Act have now shed more light on the One Billion Trees funding proposal.

They show forestry officials at Te Uru Rākau told NZFFP at a meeting on 22 August that supporting large-scale forestry was not the aim of the One Billion Trees programme. The bid was knocked back that day - but only after the forestry company put forward an ambitious proposal to the government.

In a version of that presentation that NZFFP emailed to officials in July, the company suggested its owners and the government become joint shareholders in a new company, to be called NZFFP Afforestation Ltd.

According to the presentation, obtained by RNZ under the OIA, the new company would join the government in buying marginal farmland in the Bay of Plenty, East Cape and Northland.

NZFFP Afforestation would then apply under the One Billion Trees Programme for $95 million for commercial planting.

The presentation proposed that NZFFP Afforestation would raise up to $US1 billion in capital over time by issuing "green bonds" to investors.

Brian Henry and Winston Peters entering the High Court in Auckland

Company director Brian Henry and Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

In the email accompanying the presentation document, David Henry said that capital would allow the One Billion Trees programme to meet the rest of its objectives "without further reliance on the NZ Treasury for funding".

The issue of converting farm land to forestry has been sensitive for the government and just yesterday a large protest by farmers was held at Parliament.

But the bid was taken seriously enough by officials at Te Uru Rākau for David Henry to secure a personal meeting with the Deputy Director General Julie Collins on 13 June.

Emails released to RNZ show Damian Diack, director of forest developments grants and partnerships, also attended.

Several weeks after that meeting, on 9 July, David Henry emailed both Ms Collins and Mr Diack NZFFP's proposal.

UK-based David Henry flew back to New Zealand for the 22 August meeting where the bid was knocked back. Emails suggest he did not see that as the end of the matter, asking the next day when a follow-up call could be scheduled and telling Mr Diack: "We have started reworking our concept overnight."

David Henry did not respond to email requests for comment. His father and fellow director Brian Henry did not wish to comment either. Ms Trotman also turned down RNZ's request for comment.

NZFFP's presentation said only "marginal farmland" would be converted under its proposal, with about 75 percent planted and the remaining 25 percent sold back to farmers. However, further references in the document discussed planting "rolling-to-medium hill country" in radiata pine for commercial harvesting.

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Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Wairoa mayor and sheep and beef farmer Craig Little said he did not consider rolling-to-medium hill country to be marginal farmland.

"Rolling-to-mid-hill would probably be a perfect farm," he said. "Because, obviously, flat land, you're going to put something else rather than stock on there - like horticultural or cropping. Rolling-to-mid is just beautiful country, you can get easy access over it, [so] I'm not sure what they're talking about."

A recent purchaser of farmland for forestry had tried to sell the flat land back to local farmers, but "at an absolutely ridiculous price that no one can afford", he said.

A spokeswoman for Mr Jones declined another request from RNZ to interview the minister. She said the material outlining the company's proposal never came to Mr Jones or his office and he was not involved in any decision because it was rejected by officials before reaching him.

In a letter to RNZ, Te Uru Rākau said Future Forest Products never made a formal application for funding, assistance, or support.

National Party regional development spokesman Chris Bishop has reiterated his call for the auditor-general to investigate Future Forest Products' bids for government funding.

"I think everything about this is incredibly opaque and incredibly murky and it really does deserve serious auditor-general scrutiny."

The sole shareholder of Future Forest Products is Kinleith Continuation LP, a limited partnership of which David Henry is the public partner. The limited partner and their investment or shareholding is not publicly available.

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