High-quality Access

A Response to the Feedback Questions That Were Attached to the Report, Walking Access in the New Zealand Outdoors

Pete McDonald.


Is it a privilege to be able to follow a foot-track across private rural land?

At the heart of New Zealand's outdoor traditions, affecting two-thirds of the country, rests the ethos that access across private rural land is a privilege, not a right. That is, the access is a concession that the landholder can grant or withdraw. To argue otherwise is, at best, to not understand New Zealand's social conventions, and is, at worst, outdoor heresy.

According to a press report (Nelson Mail, 27 September 2003), a survey commissioned by Federated Farmers had found that 92 per cent of farmers were willing to negotiate access with the public. Contradicting this, the report (2003) of the Land Access Ministerial Reference Group suggested that 'many landowners [felt] under increasing pressure to deny access'. The Reference Group discerned a 'decreased goodwill towards giving "general access" (i.e., to people not known to the landowner)'.

What were we to make of these conflicting findings? We had a basic factual dispute. Who was fooling who?

The Reference Group had met periodically over six months. It had considered over 230 written submissions, as well as presentations by various groups. Much of the evidence presented to it had described access problems. For example, a survey of the attitudes of farmers on the Otago Peninsula (Dirk Reiser, 2000) had indicated that 'landholders [were] not in favour [of using] private rural lands for public recreation'.

The irony – unless you believed the results of the Federated Farmers survey – was that to retain or regain the privilege, in some places we would need to make linear access into a legal right, thus turning the New Zealand access traditions on their head.

Such a change would affect property rights. In New Zealand, an individual's property rights prevail over the public's recreational rights. Federated Farmers, representing 17,000 members, had the law on its side in maintaining that access across private land was a concession that could be granted or withdrawn. (Except for walkways created under the Walkways Act, which are rights of way. In some circumstances, though, the landholder may be able to close a walkway.)

'High-quality Access' (October 2003) argued that one-off, arranged access was inherently inflexible and restrictive and, furthermore, that it could be arbitrary and discriminating. It was poor-quality access. It still is. It always will be. We cannot show it as public access on maps, for the benefit of everyone, New Zealanders and tourists alike. It does not allow spontaneity. It does not provide certainty. It is often more available to organised groups than to individuals.

It was my view, in 2003, that a failure to provide higher-quality linear access would hinder the spreading and diversifying of outdoor recreation and outdoor tourism and would stunt their sophistication and maturity.

Many of the arguments in favour of preserving the status quo arose from some farmers' unease about – or even dread of – the behaviour of the New Zealand public. The irresponsibility or ignorance or stupidity or criminality of a small minority of the public seemed to be restricting the recreational freedom of the majority. The lack of confidence shown by some farmers in the public, justified or not, formed a divisive social irritant.

The Federated Farmers submission to the Ministerial Reference Group talked of farmers' 'property rights [being] in danger of being overridden by a public "right" of access, which [had] the potential to put at risk individual farming enterprises, with flow-on effects to rural communities and the New Zealand economy.'

If greatly increased access caused farming difficulties and associated economic decline, the agriculture of some Western European countries would have been very adversely affected long ago. Yet it was debatable whether Europe's many hundreds of thousands of kilometres of footpaths had inconvenienced the growing of crops or the grazing of animals to any measurable degree. Would increased linear access across New Zealand farms really jeopardise those farms?

'High-quality Access' proposed a less narrow-minded and more progressive approach to access, to increase the amount, security, and permanence of linear access across private rural land. Waymarked linear access was relatively unintrusive and could defuse the mutual suspicion and resentment that, in some places, seemed to have replaced the traditional goodwill.

I did understand the New Zealand social conventions on access, but I considered that they resulted in inferior access. 'High-quality Access' offered the views of an access heretic.

October 2003.

High-quality Access (410 KB, fifty-seven A4 pages).

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High-quality Access (410 KB, fifty-seven A4 pages).

'Access to private land must be viewed as a privilege, not a right.'

From the Federated Farmers of New Zealand submission to the Land Access Ministerial Reference Group, 2003.

'The soft, negotiated approach over private lands has failed – e.g., Walkways.'

Public Access New Zealand, 18 September 2003.