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Confusion over GATS rules for land sales to overseas interests

The Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society is calling on the government to sort out mixed messages over the possible impact of General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) on the regulation of coastal and other rural land sales to overseas interests.

In reply to a question in Parliament on Tuesday, Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, indicated that tighter controls on the sale of coastal land to offshore interests could contravene GATS if the controls covered land used for trade in services such as tourism.

Yet New Zealand's schedule under GATS is meant to exempt the Overseas Investment Commission's consideration of rural land sales from GATS rules.

"Can the government control the sale of coastal land to overseas interests or not? Or do GATS and the narrow scope of the current exemption constrain New Zealand's ability to implement effective controls?" Forest and Bird spokesperson Geoff Keey said.

"The government should clarify what it can do to protect the public interest in coastal lands," Geoff Keey said.

"Coastal land is prime land for tourism, commercial recreation and accommodation development. On the face of it these would be services that GATS covers. Yet coastal land is also important for conservation and public recreation," Mr Keey said.

"Government funds to purchase land for conservation cannot afford to compete with extremely wealthy overseas buyers."

"Forest and Bird is seeking a moratorium on coastal land sales to overseas interests while current policy and legislation is reviewed."

"Forest and Bird understands that the government is currently considering a request from an unnamed other government to also open up "Sporting and recreational services to GATS," Geoff Keey said.

"If this request is accepted, it could further tie Government's hands and undo any controls on overseas ownership if the foreign corporate or person wanted to buy land for recreational or sporting use such as a golf course, or a fishing, tramping, walking, or hunting venture," Geoff Keey said.

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