25 March 2024

'I still hope': Small step taken in Majura Valley farmers' battle over rural land leases

| Claire Fenwicke
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Majura Valley farmland

The future of rural land leases for a handful of families in the Majura Valley is still up in the air despite a recent decision by a Federal Minister. Photo: Stephen Pickard.

The 19-year battle over Majura Valley rural land leases is possibly one step closer to being resolved following an “in-principle agreement” from the Commonwealth.

Five farming families have been trying to determine their futures since the ACT Government changed its policy on 99-year rural land leases in 2005.

They’re in limbo because they’re on ‘split blocks’, which means some of their properties are on ACT-owned land and some parts on national land.

In September 2022, they accepted a 25-year lease offer with no withdrawal clause from former planning minister Mick Gentleman, with the expectation that it would be set up in nine months.

Nothing has been confirmed with them since.

Now Finance Minister Katy Gallagher has provided in-principle agreement under the Commonwealth Property Disposal Policy for the Department of Defence to dispose of the Majura split blocks to the ACT Government.

“Final approval is subject to the Department of Defence and the ACT Government finalising negotiations and reaching agreement on the terms and conditions of sale,” a spokesperson for Senator Gallagher’s office said.

“Once this has occurred, the Assistant Minister for Defence will write to the Minister for Finance requesting final approval of the disposal and the revocation of the National Land status.”

Under the policy, off-market sales of Commonwealth land are permitted in limited circumstances but need the Finance Minister’s approval.

If the minister revokes the National Land status, it would be published in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette. Revocation commences from the date of publication.

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It’s welcome news, but one that fifth-generation Majura Valley farmer Paul Keir said still leaves landholders “in the dark”.

“We’ve had in-principle [agreement] for the past 19 years,” he said.

However, given Senator Gallagher used to be the ACT’s Chief Minister and had toured the Majura Valley area to hear about potential agritourism plans in that role, the announcement does inject a semblance of hope.

“I’m hoping now this means they’re going to do something … that Katy is really going to push for it now,” Mr Keir said.

“To have this hanging over your head … it’s a really difficult thing.”

Lack of certainty around the leases means securing bank loans for improvements has been difficult, as well as not knowing what (if anything) can be passed on to future generations.

They also can’t sell up because the ACT Government has to facilitate the sale, even if there’s an interested buyer, and producers can’t capitalise on improvements they’ve made to the land.

Mr Keir is in his 60s and has seen six of the farmers originally affected by the rural land lease change die. He’s hopeful the issue can be resolved in his lifetime.

“I’d hate for us to get to 80 and still be trying to sort this out,” he said.

“This has been farming land for an awfully long time … the longer this goes on, the more mental anguish people have. It becomes quite desperate.”

Mr Keir and other farmer representatives have had the chance to speak with newly appointed Planning Minister Chris Steel about the future but have been told they need to await the results of the 2010 Eastern Broadacre planning study. At the moment, both the ACT and Commonwealth governments are undertaking a strategic environmental assessment.

Community consultation on that is expected later this year.

Mr Keir said it made them feel like they had gone back a decade.

“To have that false hope [from Minister Gentleman’s promise] dragged out from underneath us … I think there’s something they’re not telling us,” he said.

“Why not give us the lease and let us keep producing agriculture and goods? … If you don’t have a use for the land, why not roll over the lease and get on with it?

“For me, and for others, we’re right at our limit now, and we don’t know if this [in-principle agreement] is a step forward or another case of smoke and mirrors. It’s stressful.

“Just be honest with us.”

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An ACT Government spokesperson confirmed officials met with Defence representatives on 18 March to discuss potential terms of sale.

“Following on from this meeting, the ACT Government is awaiting confirmation from Defence on technical matters before commencing formal negotiations,” they said.

They confirmed the final draft of the Eastern Broadcare Strategic Assessment Report was being assessed and would be submitted to the Commonwealth Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) in the coming weeks.

“The ACT Government is pursuing the Strategic Assessment and lease negotiations concurrently with the Commonwealth Government,” the spokesperson said.

“This will help us work to expedite negotiations as quickly as possible and provide certainty to the residents of the Majura split blocks.”

For now, Mr Keir said he was trying to stay positive.

“I’m a glass-half-full person. I still hope.”

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