By Matthew Rosenberg, Local Democracy Reporter
A petition to abolish century-old legislation affecting land use in the small East Coast town of Tokomaru Bay has united the community in support of change.
Over 1000 people have signed a petition to abolish perpetual leasing - an arrangement that has effectively stripped Māori land owners in Tokomaru Bay of control for the past 100 years.
The leasing arrangement was applied to the town's Tuatini Township Blocks after 1910, as the result of a government error, and enforces a strict set of conditions including 999-year terms and restrictions on how the owners control the land.
Those who hold the leases can renew them in perpetuity, and rent is fixed for 21-year periods at five percent of the unimproved value for rural land, or four percent for urban land.
If the owners wish to gain back control of their blocks, they have to fork out the lessee's asking price, which in the case of one recent example can be as much as $599,000.
Belinda Tuari-Toma, who has whakapapa to Tokomaru, set up the petition in hopes it can be a catalyst for change.
"I think there's enough evidence - not just with our hapū or iwi - obviously across the motu to show that we are self-determined, we are resourced, educated enough to be able to manage the administration and development and operation of our own whenua.
"I think it's time."
Tokomaru Bay, 90 kilometres north of Gisborne, is home to about 450 people.
Once a hub of trade and activity, it is now better known for its slow pace of life and white sandy beaches.
Based in Wellington, Tuari-Toma said a lot of people had moved away from Tokomaru Bay because of a lack of opportunities.
Part of the issue was a decline in the quality of infrastructure, which she believed was connected in part to perpetual leasing.
There needed to be accountability on those holding the leases to keep properties maintained, she said.
"There isn't that ongoing monitoring or evaluation. I just think it's because of the perplexity of how it's administered. There's deterioration."
Her hope was that the petition would be a start in unlocking the land and helping Tokomaru reach its full potential.
Once the signature card is full, the aim was to escalate the matter with members of parliament, and continue the discussions the owners had already been having with the government, including those of her auntie Tina Olsen-Ratana.
Tuari-Toma said the petition was also a chance for the younger generation to show support for the work kaumātua had already been putting in around the issue, and prove they were ready to step up and take on the challenge.
"This will show our parliamentary leaders that we're really committed and we won't stop, because it's about whānau wellbeing and uplifting whānau into a better, secure place.
"It's all about securing the future for our whānau. A lot of our whānau are urbanised and displaced, and haven't been able to return home."
Tokomaru Bay's Tuatini Township Block contains a total of 13 sections and has 390 beneficial owners.
The leases are held by a variety of parties, and documentation provided by Te Tumu Paeroa - a professional trustee organisation for Māori which manages on behalf of the owners - show one current lessee has had a stake since the late 1960s.
For the financial year ended March 2020, the owners were left with $5943 in total rent, once Te Tumu Paeroa took its cut.
Speaking to Local Democracy Reporting, Tamaki Legal managing director Darrell Naden said legislative change was essential to right the wrongs of the land owners, but admitted that would be difficult because of the amount of time left on the 999-year arrangement.
A shake-up could open the door for lessees to demand compensation for lost earnings over the next 900 years, he said.
"The lessees have got the lessor over a barrel. And so for the last 100-odd years the Tuatini lessors have not only lost the use of their land, they're not able to charge market rent.
"What a disaster for these landowners."
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ on Air