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Councils, campers and tourism: Practical solutions may be on the way

Councils, campers and tourism - Local Government March 2017

By Linda O’Reilly, Partner, Brookfields Lawyers

Given the lateness of summer this year, it is probably an appropriate time to talk about camping. When the Freedom Camping Act was introduced in 2011 its stated purpose was “to address the adverse effects of freedom camping”. But the default position under the Act is that freedom camping is permitted in any local authority area or conservation area unless it is restricted or prohibited in accordance with a bylaw, a freedom camping notice (in a conservation area) or by any Act.
The initial approach of some local authorities was to introduce bylaws that rather too enthusiastically prohibited freedom camping without proper regard to the fact that such a bylaw must not have the effect of absolutely prohibiting freedom camping, or to the necessity to sufficiently address the nuisance the bylaw would address.
The spirited intervention in the making of such bylaws by the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA), including its willingness to engage in legal proceedings, has since led to a more measured and cautious approach.
However, the Act has continued to cause frustration to regulators and campers alike. Central government is concerned that it may be having an adverse impact on tourism. In October last year the then Minister of Local Government, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga, announced he had appointed a joint working party to “improve the effectiveness and reliability of the local bylaws system and specifically prioritising the freedom camping regime”.
He reported that in the previous year 44,000 international travellers went freedom camping while in New Zealand. In addition, the NZMCA, whose members have somewhat dominated the debate over freedom camping, has a membership of 68,500.
Part of the problem appears to be that tight controls over camping locations by some councils mean that freedom campers are concentrated in a limited number of locations. The Minister said: “when councils regulate locally they need to be thinking regionally and nationally about the impact”.
This is a big ask for local authorities under pressure from local communities to protect local amenities.
A good insight on the issues is provided in the paper produced by Internal Affairs and the working group. The paper, Managing Freedom Camping in Public Places: National Situational Analysis, identifies six key problems with the implementation of the Act. These include a shortage of available camping areas displacing and concentrating campers in fewer areas, and increasing the rate of non-compliance with bylaws.
It is also suggested the media play a role in undermining goodwill towards freedom campers, that diverse regimes and regulators create inconsistent messages to campers, and that there are gaps in the information made available to freedom campers.
Added to this is the fact that overseas visitors can easily avoid infringement penalties when they leave the country.
On a more technical level is the patchwork of regulatory regimes that allow for regulating camping in public places variously under the Freedom Camping Act, the Reserves Act, the Land Transport Act, the Local Government Act and the Trespass Act.
As a result of the paper, Internal Affairs and the working group have established work streams that should result in some practical means to address these problems:

  • The production of a guidance document for councils on freedom camping management, including both enforcement and non-regulatory measures to mitigate harm;
  • Creating a national dataset of all freedom camping restrictions and prohibitions throughout New Zealand; and
  • Working with the Responsible Camping Forum to provide consistent messaging to freedom campers.

Longer term, and arising from current work streams, there will be an analysis to determine if amendments are required to the Freedom Camping Act.


This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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