The notion of private freehold land was once sacrosanct, in law and in public policy. But the rights of private property owners are slowly being eroded. To what extent is land private anymore, when so many government impositions can be made upon it, without recourse? This exchange below is a piece of satire, designed simply to highlight where property rights are heading. The interchange, and the characters, are entirely fictional.
THE SCENE: A landowner with a 100 hectare parcel of rural land right on the wrong side of the urban growth boundary, visits a bureaucrat to discuss his options for improving the value of his holding.
Landowner: Good morning, I’m here to discuss this letter which says I can’t divide my block up because my application’s been knocked back under this regional plan of yours.
Bureaucrat: Good morning Sir. First I should explain it’s not my regional plan, it’s a regional plan for all of us, so we can all live sustainably and plan for a better future for our wonderful region. Now the reason your application was rejected is because your land has been defined as an important piece of our rural environment and we don’t want to see that ruined by people chopping up blocks for rural residential housing.
Landowner: Who’s this “we”?
Bureucrat: The government, and the community Sir. There’s been extensive public consultation on all our planning schemes so we’re really only doing what the people want...
Landowner: Not what I want mate, and no one asked me. Look, immediately across the road, some developer’s bought my neighbour’s land which is the same size as mine and they’ll be subdividing it for a new housing estate. My neighbour’s retirement and future health care costs have all been met through that sale, but here I am right across the road, and I can’t do anything like that.
Bureaucrat: Well I am sorry Sir, but the boundary has to go somewhere, and it’s important we balance the needs of future housing with the need to preserve rural lands. Plus, the people who live on your neighbour’s block in the future will appreciate having the open space provided by your land.
Landowner: Oh terrific, so you’re using me to provide the views for the people across the road all cooped up on tiny blocks and in townhouses. If you want the views that much, why don’t you buy my land?
Bureaucrat: (laughs) The government isn’t made of money Sir.
Landowner: All right, so tell me this. My land’s only marginal as cattle country. Half of it’s covered with regrowth so to improve the land I’ll need to clear some trees and improve the pasture. I presume you don’t object to me doing that?
Bureaucrat: Sir, I’m sorry but you can’t be serious? Haven’t you heard about climate change? We can’t allow people to cut down trees willy nilly, there are very strict rules about that. We need to care for our environment, not ruin it. Plus, that land is an important koala habitat and essential to the survival of the species in this region.
Landowner: What?! You’re kidding aren’t you? No one’s ever seen a koala out here in living memory. It’s the wrong sort of country. The wrong sort of trees. What sort of bloody evidence are you on about?
Bureaucrat: Scientific evidence Sir. We’ve used the latest satellite imagery and survey maps to determine that ...
Landowner: (Interrupting): .... did anyone get out of their bloody office and actually walk around and look for themself?
Bureaucrat: Yes Sir, they did. (Impatiently) We have a report on hand from a prominent environmental group which claims to have collected koala droppings in this very area.
Landowner: (Increasingly impatient). They’ll find koalas on the bloody moon that mob if they’ve smoked enough drugs... you must know that they’re all bloody inner city hippies who wouldn’t know koala shit from cow shit.
Bureaucrat: Now Sir, calm down. They’re a very respected group - very influential in government circles.
Landowner: Only because those bloody greenies give the government their votes to keep them in power and doing what they want. (Pauses). Never mind, if I have to leave the trees, I’ll need to improve the water holding of the land. I want to dam the seasonal creek that runs through it. You don’t have a problem with that I hope?
Bureaucrat: Sir, I find your disrespect for the environment disappointing. That creek is an important riparian habitat, at the headwaters of an important waterway where lungfish fossils have been found. You can’t possibly dam the creek. In fact, we will shortly be asking landowners with creeks on their properties to instigate a riparian repair program, so that these creeks can be restored to their original pristine condition.
Landowner: (Mouth agape). WHAT?! You tell me I can’t put a dam on my creek so the cattle have some water, and not only that, I’m supposed to spend a small fortune planting weeds along the creek bank because someone downstream found a bloody fish skeleton? Have you lost you mind?
Bureaucrat: Not at all Sir, it’s good policy to ensure the protection of creeks and waterways for future generations. There are serious fines if you deliberately breach that policy you know. But rest assured, we will consult with landowners like yourself before the new riparian laws come into effect.
Landowner: What’s the bloody point if you’ve already made up your mind?! For crying out loud – I can’t divide my land which is next to useless as a rural block except that it improves someone else’s views, I can’t cut down the trees to improve the carrying capacity, I can’t dam the creek to hold water, and now you want me to spend my money planting reeds along a dry creek bank and it’ll only be dry because all the water will drain away because there’s no dam to hold it back. Tell me this, what exactly CAN I do with my land?
Bureaucrat: Anything you like Sir, it is freehold land after all and this government respects private property rights above all else.
Landowner: So I can put a house on it?
Bureaucrat: Provided you seek the appropriate planning permission, and ensure that all the referral agencies concur with where you plan to put the house. Mind you, you’ll need to ensure that the house design and colour scheme also comply with local character planning guidelines, and also that any greywater and blackwater is treated with an approved on site eco-friendly waste treatment plant. We have extensive guidelines which are available if you’d like to read them.
Landowner: But right across the road there’ll be multiple brick shit boxes on small blocks with a sewerage connection? Those waste treatment plants cost a small bloody fortune...
Bureaucrat: But what price can we put on saving the planet Sir? I don’t think you should be down heartened, it could prove a valuable asset for your property, and we’re processing the approvals much faster now. You could even have yours in under 3 years. Of course that depends on how our revised planning scheme progresses.
Landowner: What revised scheme?
Bureaucrat: As part of our commitment to creating more liveable places, we’re looking at realigning some roads and creating bikeways and public transport corridors. Now, my understanding is that the draft plan for your area could mean a busway and bike path through the middle of your block, but we won’t be able to confirm the final decision until the draft plan has been out for public consultation, feedback received and the final plan gazetted. That could be as quick as 10 years.
Landowner: (By now, on the verge of tears). You want to push a busway through my block? That’ll render it unsaleable... and you want to take 10 years to work out whether you’re going to do it or not? Listen, there’s no one bloody well there who will ever use a bus. Not now, not ever. Anyone living there will be a tradie or work locally, they’ll use their cars. That’s what they want. But if you do that, I’m stuck with complete uncertainty about whether my land is going to be affected or not, and I doubt you’re going to offer me any compensation.
Bureaucrat: There IS certainty Sir, your land is freehold, and as such, of course we will compensate you for the slice we require, if we require it, based on our official land valuation of your land as a rural holding.
Landowner: But the value you come up with will be next to nothing because I can’t subdivide it, I can’t clear the trees for the sake of some phantom koala shit, I can’t dam the creek because of some ancient fish bones, and I won’t be able to afford to build a house because of the time and uncertainty of the approvals. You’re rendering my land next to useless, you know that?
Bureaucrat: (Taking offence) That’s NOT true Sir. We regard your land as very useful, for all the reasons I’ve outlined. That’s why we’re so intent on protecting it. Plus, we’re aware of certain underground gas finds that could be of great value as royalties to the government in the future.
Landowner: Well that’s terrific, at least I might get to make a buck if some drillers arrive some day. Bring em on!
Bureaucrat: No Sir, YOU won’t get to make anything. The gas is underground, you have no ownership of the mineral rights. The miners will and the government will collect the royalties, which improves our ability to create more liveable communities for all of us. (Sarcastically) You included.
Landowner: So you mean they can come onto my land, uninvited, drill holes everywhere, knock down trees in the process, even poison what little water’s in the creek, and there’s nothing I can do about it other than stand by and watch you and them make money at my expense?
Bureaucrat: I’m sorry you feel that way Sir. But the Government has certain obligations to expand the productive capacity of the economy and the resources sector is very important in that regard.
Landowner: I don’t know why I bother, why my parents ever bothered, why don’t I just go on the dole and forget about doing anything with the land?
Bureaucrat: But it IS your land Sir, it is freehold and you own it. You’re a very lucky person, so many others would be envious of you, given how unaffordable land has become.
Landowner: I’ll bet I could change their mind in a heartbeat. Christ, I’m ruined. Have you got anything else you want to tell me?
Bureaucrat: No Sir, that’s about it I think. (Pauses) Now let me think, there was something... now what was it? (Pauses again) Oh, of course, did I mention that someone thinks they might have found a sacred site? ....