Foreign foresters dominate

Wednesday 9 Oct 2019

Foreign forestry companies NZ's biggest landowners - The four largest private landowners in New Zealand are all foreign-owned forestry companies, an RNZ investigation has found.

Despite a clampdown on some overseas investment, including a ban on residential sales to offshore buyers, the Labour-led government has actively encouraged further foreign purchases of land for forestry through a stream-lined 'special forestry test'.

Since the government was formed, the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) has approved more than $2.3 billion of forestry-related land sales - about 31,000 hectares of it previously in New Zealand hands.

Of that, about half has been sold via a streamlined 'special forestry test' introduced by the government last October. Overall, nearly $5b of sensitive land has changed hands through the OIO since the government was formed.

The information comes from an RNZ investigation into land ownership in New Zealand.

Using Land Information New Zealand data, Companies Office searches and other research, RNZ has compiled a list of what we believe are the 100 biggest private landowners in New Zealand by area, not including the Crown and public entities (which control at least 28 percent of the land) or iwi.

Together, these landowners have freehold ownership of 1.42m ha of land - more than 10 percent of all privately-owned land and about 5 percent of New Zealand's total land area of 26.8m ha.

That comes close to the 6.7 percent of total land RNZ could conclusively identify as Maori- owned. Tuhoe, Ngati Tuwharetoa, and the Central North Island grouping of eight iwi were the largest iwi landholders - although Tuhoe's holdings include Te Urewera, which has special independent legal status.

The analysis found at least 3.3 percent of New Zealand's land is foreign-owned.

Forestry companies dominate top 10 - RNZ has only counted freehold land - that is, land owned outright. A separate analysis of lease titles found that many of the largest landowners were also large leaseholders. That includes forestry companies, who often buy surface rights - known as 'cutting rights' - to plant and harvest trees, but not the land itself.

Overseas forestry companies dominate the top of the freehold landowners list, taking the first four places, and account for six of the top 10 land-holders overall.

One of the companies, New Forests Asset Management, amassed its entire land portfolio of more than 77,000 ha in less than four years - bumping it from owning nothing in 2015, to being the country's third biggest private landowner today.

The company was allowed to go ahead with an application to buy more land - which was ultimately approved - while some of its earlier purchases were still under investigation by the Overseas Investment Office.

Forestry features prominently in the rest of the top 100, along with farming - due to the many large farming stations still in individual ownership. The various Christian denominations, including the Exclusive Brethren and Gloriavale, collectively own nearly 14,700ha - placing the church at 24th on the list.

Individual homeowners own very little of New Zealand's land mass. People who own five hectares or less of land - a generous estimate of what might count as a single residential property, such as a lifestyle block - collectively own about 1.5 percent of New Zealand.

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Source: RNZ

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