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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

VI — Land Settlement

Land Settlement

It was not until Rolleston became Minister of Lands in 1879 that he began to concern himself with forms of land tenure, and thereby raised a storm of controversy which did not die down for nearly a quarter of a century. But page 59during his Provincial days he was chiefly engaged in seeking to prevent land aggregation and land monopoly. Two different problems arose, one relating to the land within the Canterbury block originally granted to the Canterbury Association (the Canterbury block ran from the Waipara to the Ashburton—the Province of Canterbury from the Hurunui to the Waitaki), and the other regarding the pastoral lands within the Province but outside this block. Within the Canterbury block the price of land had been fixed under the Wakefield Scheme at £3 an acre, but after the Provincial Council was constituted, it reduced this "sufficient" price to £2, an acre. At a later date, suggestions were made for still further reducing this price, but this proposal did not meet with favour. Rolleston was always opposed to any reduction because of his view that such a course would play into the hands of large capitalists. He pleaded that the land was "a. sacred heritage", and that the large landowners should be kept out "as the glory of Canterbury is its working population". The lands of the Canterbury block were therefore disposed of on this basis.

Mr W. P. Reeves has claimed that this price was not sufficiently high when land values soared through railway construction and the influx of population. In his view these changes completely negatived the original policy. The people, he says, very foolishly neither raised this price nor imposed settlement conditions on purchasers, and hence the land fever destroyed the completest trial of settling land at a high price without settlement conditions.1 But it is difficult to see how any mere fixation of land prices could prevent speculation or give priority to the small settler, for whether the price be low or high the advantage still lay with the large capitalist, and the higher it is the more likely is he to be the only buyer. Moreover, if the price of farm products determines land values, any fixed price may be too high or too low. In short, market values of land cannot

1 State Experiments, vol. 1, p. 214.

page 60be made to coincide with prices as fixed by law. Our land laws are studded with many wearisome efforts to regulate land settlement, to impose conditions requiring personal residence, and to restrict aggregation. But it is probable that economic changes, such as the rise of the dairy industry, have been more powerful factors in promoting closer settlement than all the well-meant efforts of Parliament.

In the pastoral lands outside the Canterbury block still more interesting and difficult questions arose. Here the Pastoral Leases were controlled by the general land regulations issued in 1853 by Sir George Grey. These regulations reduced the price of rural lands to 10s. an acre, or, when certified by the Commissioner of Crown Lands, to 5s. an acre. Grey's motives have been defended by his biographer, but the merits and demerits of his plan have always aroused fierce conflict of opinion.1 In Rolleston's opinion, these regulations opened the door to all the evils of land aggregation, and he always strongly denounced them.

The many ingenious devices invented by the squatters for keeping out the small settlers have often been described. They were dealt with in detail by Rolleston in a Memorandum to the Land Board in 1873. Briefly, these schemes were all directed to pre-empting key positions, so as to render access of settlement by the small settlers impossible. For example, the gorge of each river where it came out upon the plains was the only means of access to large tracts of back country. "Take the gorge of the Rakaia," said Rolleston, "which is the key to a large amount of back country containing coal and other minerals, and up which will ultimately lie means of communication with the West Coast." Anyone who bought the mouth of a gorge could remain master of the back country without the expense of purchasing it. This evil had already arisen in the gorge of the Waimakariri. Rolleston urged that main lines of roads should be laid down in every direction over the plains,

1 See Condliffe, New Zealand in the Making, p. 101.

page 61communication should be kept open with the passes and gorges of the rivers, and in all hill country the approaches through the valleys should be maintained open as well as such other lines of road as are suggested by the nature of the country. "Take the Peninsula," he said. "A rider once on top of the ridge should be able to keep there so as to come into any of the bays, or to pass any of them without being obliged to go down." In short, he urged that a system of free selection before survey is utterly obstructive of settlement.

Other forms of spotting consisted of pre-empting the only land with a supply of water so as to render adjacent land of no value to anyone but the owner of the water. Squatters were also entitled to certain areas of land for every chain of fencing erected or shepherds' huts, and, by an ingenious distribution of these, they obtained the first right to buy all the most desirable sites.

"Gridironing" consisted in buying a series of twenty-acre sections along a road frontage in such a way as to leave eighteen acres between each twenty-acre section. Under the Land Regulations these eighteen-acre blocks could only be bought at auction, and they were therefore almost certain to fall into the hands of the capitalists.

But there was another side to the story. The squatters contended that they had to adopt all these expedients of spotting and gridironing in self-protection. They complained that otherwise small men or speculators would come in and buy key positions controlling a whole area, and then blackmail the squatter by demanding large sums before they would grant access or egress for his stock.