'We only survive on this land' - Māori landowners fight back after council claims they own $18m in rates

Māori landowners in the Far North have gathered to dispute the way their properties are rated and a Northland lawyer’s backed them, saying the system is flawed.

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They owe more than $18 million in unpaid rates, but a lawyer says the system is flawed. Source: 1 NEWS

The district council’s established landowners in the region collectively owe more than $18 million in unpaid rates from over the last six years.

Tukau Law director Season-Mary Downs said, "[The system] doesn't account for the fact that land is multiply owned…It doesn't account for the fact that Māori land can't be sold, that a lot of Māori land is land locked and of poor quality".

"A lot of it is poorly serviced by council, it doesn't have the same ability to generate income so it faces a lot of challenges. So it needs to be rated differently or there needs to be a broader conversation about how it can be rated fairly", Ms Downs said.

Communal ownership is a challenge with Cyril Chapman’s land, which is about 1000 acres in size and is owned by about 10,000 people.

"Most of the owners live in places like Australia and Auckland," Mr Chapman said.

"We only survive on this land, we have no facilities, we have no infrastructure", he said.

His whānau hasn’t paid rates in 30 years.

The landowners meeting in Kaitaia last night saw many share their frustrations. 

"This is the fight back," one said.

Another stood up and said: "We've given enough, this whole country was founded on stolen Māori land."

Meeting organiser Rueben Taipari said one of the questions landowners have is, "Is Māori land protected under Te Tiriti o Waitangi? Rating is a voluntary process and under Te Tiriti o Waitangi we really should have a discussion about how we should pay our rates."

Ms Downs said, "We need to look at historical origins of [the] issue and it really does originate from Te Tiriti o Waitangi, from 1840."

She believes both central and local government have equal obligations as treaty partners.

"The directive may need to come from law, from central Government and from policy development that reaches the regions.

"There needs to be a clear directive to local councils around their obligations to engage with Māori and how to do that."

In a statement provided to 1 NEWS, the Far North District Council acknowledged the difficulties faced by Māori freehold landowners.

"We also know that rates arrears can act as a deterrent when owners do decide to develop their whenua for housing or other purposes. This is a dilemma faced by all councils."

It says current legislation requires rates be charged on all land.

"It is in the best interests of the council and landowners for land to be productive. Our policy is to work constructively with Māori freehold land owners so they can develop their whenua and, if required, reduce and clear rate arrears."

1 NEWS requested a comment from Nanaia Mahuta about the issue today, as the Minister for both Maori Affairs and Local Government, but was unable to get a response.