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Farmer in a rates revolt

Te Awaiti Station in rural Martinborough. PHOTO/SUE TEODORO

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A Wairarapa farmer on a remote hill station is the fourth-highest ratepayer in the South Wairarapa district, but says he gets nothing in return from Greater Wellington Regional Council.

Dan Riddiford, fifth-generation owner and farmer of Te Awaiti Station in South Wairarapa, is hitting back, saying the rating system for his farm is unfair, the rates are excessive, and he is charged levies for things he is not getting.

The sheep, cattle, and deer station is literally at the end of the road.

Take the winding and steep back roads past Ruakokoputuna to Tora and beyond, cross the concrete bridge over the Oterei River, and you’re there.

The farm buildings are tucked along a gully near the ocean. Even the native grasses seem to have bent away from the wind.

The steep, rocky, sparsely covered hillsides are uninviting and, in some ways, forbidding. Few sheep graze on their slopes.

Riddiford is challenging GWRC to tell him what, if any, on-farm benefits Te Awaiti Station is receiving.

He said the strong New Zealand dollar and the high and rising rates meant his income was falling while his expenses were rising.

He quoted award-winning agri-economist Rob Davison, saying an average farmer in hard hill country would pay 7 per cent of their gross sales in total rates.

“I’m in a vice. I’m being squeezed from both sides, and it will get worse,” Riddiford said.

He wants farmers in remote rural areas with limited support from district and regional councils to have this struggle recognised through a remote rural differential and rating valuations as soon as possible and their rates bills adjusted accordingly.

To support this, he has drafted a detailed submission, which he was to present in person to GWRC yesterday as part of its long-term plan public consultation process.

In 2021, the station paid almost $48,000 in rates to South Wairarapa District Council and GWRC.

That figure would rise steeply under current proposals to an estimated $59,000 in 2022, and go up sharply after that, he said.

In 2020, more than $19,000 of Riddiford’s rates went to GWRC.

Comparable-level ratepayers are in urban areas, getting water, drainage, sewerage, and other services his station and other rural ratepayers do not get.

He said other affected farmers had not had time to make submissions to GWRC, but shared his concerns.

Riddiford has done his homework. He quotes legislation as well as case-law from the Court of Appeal which supports his view that public authorities have a fiduciary obligation [high-level duty of care] to treat ratepayers fairly and even-handedly.

He said GWRC was failing him and others in this duty.

“For almost five years, we have got no benefits from GWRC. Nothing. They can’t even follow the law. The money flows one way to Wellington to pay huge wages to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get employed,” he said.

Riddiford pays for his entire water system, the farm’s drinking water comes from a local source and is not piped in. Basic services such as electricity, phone, and internet are provided, but not by public authorities and are not funded by rates. One of the few publicly provided services is the road to the station itself, maintained and paid for by South Wairarapa District Council.

The road in is punishing to the uninitiated, the last 15 kilometres are gravel.

The small stones pile up on both sides of the often-narrow road making the going slow, there are steep drops to the river about 40 metres below, frequent ‘accident’ warnings, sheep and cattle grazing alongside and plenty of one-lane bridges.

Even in the best conditions, a trip to Martinborough for coffee would take most of the day.

“In the last 20 years, we did get a limited amount of possum control [from GWRC] and we did get an upgrade of the farm map. That was last upgraded in 2017.

“We get nothing [from GWRC], and yet they want to increase the rates by a huge amount.

I get levied $1552 a year for Wellington public transport, which I never use.

“I get charged $7500 as a special levy for pest control. GWRC do nothing, but our own staff killed over 2000 possums last year,” he said.

GWRC had provided pest control services to the station in the past. On top of this, Riddiford said 80 per cent of the 6500-hectare farm is greywacke which is not productive, yet he is charged for rates as if it were.

“It’s big, and it’s steep, and it’s infertile, but we get rated as if we’re good country.”

He said greywacke was comprised of hard rock with bluffs and vertical drop-offs. It is similar to the Remutaka saddle.

“Trees can grow, but pastures struggle. Sheep can graze, but not so many.”

GWRC is developing its 2021-2031 Long-Term Plan, for which public hearings are under way this week.

It did not wish to make a comment.

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