Discussions are under way for Auckland Council to buy the disputed Ihumātao land in a bid to break the three-year deadlock.
Sources have told RNZ the Crown is considering loaning 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.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson is leading the talks around a resolution. In a statement to RNZ, he said the government was continuing efforts to find a solution that respected “all parties including the Crown, mana whenua and Fletchers”.
“These matters are complex and are taking some time to work through, but all parties are working on negotiating a solution that satisfies everyone involved,” he said.
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. 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. 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.
Featured Image: Fletcher is seeking $40 million for the property in Mangere – more than double the $19m it paid in 2014. Photo / nzherald.