Opinion: Accommodating freedom campers no easy ask

I have to admit I’m not a big fan of freedom campers.

You may know the sort that I mean: they have a crappy van with a mattress in the back; young people in their 20s – so pretty much kids; too tight to spend 10 bucks on a campsite but not so broke that they can’t go to the pub; they prefer to cook dinner in the main street for all to see rather than do it somewhere more discreet or appropriate; the same goes with brushing their teeth or washing their undies.

And these are just petty annoyances. There is more serious stuff: defecating or weeing in bushes and leaving loo paper everywhere, rather than go find a toilet; leaving rubbish in public places and overflowing the bins; dossing out in their clapped-out vans in residential areas and annoying the people who live there; damaging the natural environment by turning it into their personal living space; polluting others’ views with the sight of them; breathing …

But, seriously, we better get used to it because freedom camping is here to stay.

Up until now freedom camping has always been banned in Raglan and the surrounding district, but a new council bylaw is about to change all that.

Freedom camping is a right in New Zealand thanks to the Government and its Freedom Camping Act 2011, which permits it anywhere on public land – yes, including the street you live in.

The Waikato District Council is currently drafting a Freedom Camping Bylaw in line with the act, and it can only restrict or forbid freedom camping for reasons to protect an area, for health and safety concerns, or to protect access to an area.

The council’s been seeking feedback from community groups to take their issues into consideration. There will be a chance for a public consultation once the draft has been released, possibly in April.

Last week, the Raglan Residents and Ratepayers Association held a public meeting to understand the gripes and likes regarding freedom camping, to pass on to council.

I went, and it was a small group that turned up: accommodation providers, who didn’t rant about lost revenue; a woman who is sick of rowdy freedom campers parking up outside her house in Wallis St all summer; a mature and responsible couple who travel in a self-contained campervan and “leave nothing but a speck of dust”; a young bloke who stuffed freedom camping fines in the glove box of his offending vehicle while travelling in Europe, but never paid a cent; and a scruffy-looking fellow who scoffed that a bylaw is all very well, but useless if no-one will enforce it.

Everyone had excellent points to make, regardless of their stance: Bob MacLeod, with his three hats on of president of the Raglan Residents and Ratepayers Association, deputy chairman of the Raglan Community Board, and a member of the New Zealand Motor Home Association, said there was a responsibility by vehicle rental companies to inform travellers of their freedom camping responsibilities but in reality that had zero effect; Charlie Young, owner of Karioi Lodge, who would encourage “good” freedom campers, said the car park on his property had been put on a freedom camping app as a go-to site, and he’d been overrun with stayers, who also used his land as a toilet; and Solscape owner Phil McCabe reminded all that any designated sites would effectively become a busy, free camping ground for up to five months of the year.

Solutions discussed included possibly limiting the number of consecutive nights freedom campers could stay at a site; limiting the number of campervans at sites; not allowing freedom campers to block the views of residents; a blanket ban on tents and vehicles that are not self-contained (read: toilet); designated sites for those self-contained campervans; and having effective enforcement of the bylaw.

The majority of the people at the meeting were in favour of a blanket ban on freedom camping in and around Raglan, with exceptions.

But whatever way you look at it, local authorities have struggled to legislate according to the act, and Freedom Camping Bylaws are failing nationwide. The Government is to blame, and they should make freedom camping illegal, like it is in Europe, rather than require councils to make it work – when clearly it isn’t in tourist hotspots.

Other councils have already designated specific freedom camping sites and have restrictions in place, similar to those discussed at the Raglan public meeting, to no avail.

You only have to google “freedom camping news NZ” and there spews forth a raft of horrific stories, and all recent: Tekapo’s poo-plagued freedom camping spot as been temporarily closed while council deals with issues caused by human waste; a freedom camping app points travellers to free sites, and those iconic areas are being overrun with campers and littered with rubbish, alcohol bottles and human waste; Christchurch City Council is closing its five designated freedom camping sites after just three months because of overcrowding and health concerns, including a sewage leak into a nearby beach; an Otago riverside freedom camping site has been likened to a Syrian refugee camp; and in Queenstown, freedom campers are living on an empty section, disturbing the neighbours –  and there are about 30 cars parked there every night.

It’s been estimated that 60,000 international visitors go freedom camping during their stay in New Zealand, and I haven’t read anything nice about them. That number will only grow as word spreads that freedom camping is allowed in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, responsible motor-homers, who aren’t too tight to pay to park up for the night if they need to, get tarred with the same brush.

What also really gets up my nose is that as a resident of a tourist town I must pay nearly $4000 in council rates every year, but freedom campers don’t contribute at all. And our rates will go towards providing them with facilities (because the hordes will need them) and cleaning up after them, and we have to put up with the sight of them living like the homeless in our backyard.

Even if you personally have no current concerns about freedom camping, you may at some time in the future. Whatever is written into the new council bylaw might come back to bite you in the ass – if freedom campers are moved on (banned) from an area then they will only land somewhere else, just like a flock of scavenging seagulls.

I suggest you all keep an eye out for the draft bylaw when it surfaces, to make sure your interests are protected. The interests of freedom campers certainly are.

Inger Vos

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