19 Nov 2019

Ihumātao: Crown considers loan for Auckland Council to buy land

3:36 pm on 19 November 2019

Discussions are under way for Auckland Council to buy the disputed Ihumātao land in a bid to break the three-year deadlock.

Ihumātao occupation in South Auckland on August 5, 2019

Photo: RNZ / Jordan Bond

Sources have told RNZ the Crown is considering lending money to the council so it can purchase the land from Fletcher Residential, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fletcher Building.

Fletcher is seeking $40 million for the property - more than double the $19m it paid in 2014.

RNZ understands the government is keen to get the controversial land dispute wrapped up by the new year to avoid it overshadowing the annual pilgrimage to Rātana and Waitangi.

Some commentators had speculated that Waikato-Tainui might purchase the land, but that prospect ground to a halt.

Mr Robertson was meeting Fletcher Building chief executive Ross Taylor today to discuss the deadlock at Ihumātao, but said it was too early to definitively say the government was looking to lend money to the council to buy the land.

"Several months ago we were called on by the Kiingitanga, after they had had their conversations with mana whenua, to be able to work on it. Fletcher's also approached us to do that.

"So we're playing a facilitative role - it's just a bit early in the discussions at the moment to be definitive and I don't really want to comment on speculation because we are still working on it,'' he said.

Mr Robertson said earlier the government was continuing efforts to find a solution that respected "all parties including the Crown, mana whenua and Fletchers".

The Māori King is urging the government to take care not to further alienate mana whenua at Ihumātao.

In a statement, the Kiingitanga said it was surprised to hear speculation that Auckland Council was involved in discussions to buy it back.

Spokesperson Rahui Papa said it could put the whenua out of reach of mana whenua who were awaiting its return.

"We don't want any further step to alienate the mana whenua from the whenua ... and doing these things through council process has the potential to do that. It will be owned by the council and that's not what the mana whenua were asking for," Mr Papa said.

He said the council's involvement was not the by Māori, for Māori, solution that was envisaged.

Ihumātao is located next to the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve in Māngere - home to New Zealand's earliest market gardens and a significant archaeological site on land considered wahi tapu, or sacred, by local hapū and iwi.

Heritage New Zealand announced this month it was considering expanding the borders of the Stonefields reserve to include the disputed land and increasing its status to the highest level of heritage recognition.

"Whatever recommendation is finally made by Heritage New Zealand will then go to Auckland Council for it to consider whether to change the land's current status," Mr Robertson told RNZ.

Even if the land's heritage status was increased, the status of the special housing area would remain intact, meaning the land could still be used to build papakāinga housing - homes designed by Māori for Māori.

Public submissions on the heritage status are open until 29 November with a final decision expected no later than the end of February.

SOUL co-founder Pania Newton at Ihumātao on 24 July, 2019.

SOUL co-founder Pania Newton at Ihumātao. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Morning Report today: "The only thing I can confirm is since the king and kiingitanga handed to us some of the outcome of their work with mana whenua that we have been working really hard on finding a solution and that's work that's ongoing so I cannot confirm any final resolution, any details around anything beyond the fact that we in fact have remained involved in this issue since July and continue to work hard to find a solution.

"We've got a couple of principles here we are working to. One of course is the will and desire of mana whenua and the other, importantly, is not undermining the treaty ... the third of course is that Fletchers have gone into a development arrangement here in good faith and of course have development interests here too ... and I am confident we will find a way through, but again, I'm not going to speculate."

She said the Heritage New Zealand moves to extend greater protections to the land did change things but said that only affected what could happen on the land if Auckland Council took a series of particular steps.

Labour's Māori caucus co-chair Willie Jackson said he and his colleagues had come under a lot of pressure over Ihumātao and mana whenua's demands that the confiscated land be returned.

"Māaori caucus has made a real effort but we've left this with Grant Robertson and he's doing some really good work,'' he said.

Both Mr Jackson and Mr Robertson said any resolution had to avoid setting a precedent or risk reopening past or future treaty settlements.

National Party deputy leader Paula Bennett said it sounded like a taxpayer-funded bail out.

"They're trying to do some dodgy deal with taxpayers' money so they can try and appease everybody and actually at the end of the day they're likely to appease nobody except the protesters,'' she said.

How did we get here

  • Explainer: Why Ihumātao is being occupied by 'protectors'
  • Ihumātao land battle: a timeline
  • Fletcher Building bought the land in 2014. Property records show the company paid $19 million, when the rateable value was $11.5m.

    That same year, the government and Auckland Council designated 32 hectares adjacent to the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve as a Special Housing Area (SHA).

    Not long after, a group named Save Our Unique Landscape or SOUL - led by Pania Newton - voiced concern and promised to fight the housing development.

    On 5 November 2016, about 20 community members started camping by the side of the road. A month later, the land was transferred to Fletcher Residential with the plan to build 480 houses at the site.

    Some campaigners refused to leave, sleeping in caravans, sheds, tents and even an empty boat, but it was not till July this year that a groundswell of public support began to spring up for the SOUL movement after eviction notices were handed out to those occupying the village on 23 July.

    By the next day, many more had flocked to Ihumātao and the police were called in, resulting in arrests.

    People continue to occupy Ihumatao after protestors were served an eviction notice which led to a stand-off with police.

    People continue to occupy Ihumatao after protestors were served an eviction notice which led to a stand-off with police. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

    On 26 July, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called for a halt to any building work while government and other parties tried to broker a solution.

    In an unusual move after buying the land, Fletcher Building struck a compromise with Te Kawerau Iwi Tribal Authority to return 8ha to mana whenua.

    SOUL has long railed against that decision, saying their concerns as mana whenua were not being recognised.

    Kiingitanga held meetings with mana whenua and in September, Kiingi Tūheitia announced consensus had been reached and the only solution was for the land to be returned to mana whenua.

    Kiingi Tūheitia conveyed that view to the government and urged it to negotiate with Fletchers for the return of the land to its "rightful owners''.

    Since then, any progress has all but stalled as negotiations moved behind closed doors.

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