All societies with organised government carry out some of the tasks of government at a local level, for the benefit of the local population. In New Zealand these tasks are paid for by different forms of rating (charges based on the value of individual properties), subsidies from central government, income from trading, and user charges such as fees for the use of public swimming pools.
In 2020 New Zealand has 11 regional councils, which focus on regional environmental issues, including:
The regional councils are also responsible for land-transport planning and civil-defence preparedness within their regions.
There are 67 territorial authorities – 12 city councils, 54 district councils and one unitary authority, Auckland Council, which functions as both a regional and territorial authority. Five of the city or district councils – Nelson City Council and the Gisborne, Tasman, Marlborough and Chatham Islands district councils – also function as both regional and territorial authorities and are also termed unitary authorities.
Territorial authorities deal with day-to-day issues, such as:
District health boards were established in their current form in 2001, with responsibility for providing or purchasing government-funded health services for specific geographical areas. In 2020 there are 20 district health boards, each governed by a board of seven members elected by the public, and up to four appointed by the minister of health.
Elections for all New Zealand local authorities are held every three years, on the second Saturday in October. As with general elections, all citizens and permanent residents of New Zealand aged 18 and over are eligible to vote. Ratepayers are entitled to vote in the area where they live and also – if applicable – in another area where they pay rates. Voting in local-government elections is by postal ballot.
In 2019 two different voting systems were used in local-government elections. District health boards and 11 local authorities used the single transferable vote (STV) system. Under this system, each voter has one vote and ranks candidates in order of preference. The remaining local authorities used the first-past-the-post (FPP) system, in which each voter has one vote and the candidate with the highest number of votes is the winner.
Although there have been distinguished exceptions, such as Mākere Rangiātea (Ralph) Love, who became mayor of Petone (near Wellington) in 1965, Māori have generally played little part in New Zealand’s local and regional government. The Local Government Electoral Amendment Act 2002 empowered local authorities to take measure to improve Māori representation. In 2004 Bay of Plenty Regional Council introduced Māori seats, whose candidates are elected by Māori voters. When Auckland Council was established in 2010 it included a nine-member Māori advisory board.
In pre-colonial times each Māori tribe lived within a tribal area bounded by natural features of the landscape, such as the sea, rivers and mountains. Leadership came from chiefs who gained their status by right of birth. Issues were discussed in tribal councils and decisions reached by consensus.
The model of local government introduced after New Zealand became a British colony in 1840 had nothing in common with the systems practised by Māori. Instead, the Colonial Office instructed New Zealand’s governor, William Hobson, to promote as far as possible ‘the establishment of municipal and district governments for the conduct of all local affairs’, by issuing proclamations ‘dividing our said colony into districts, counties, hundreds, towns, townships and parishes’1.
Perhaps the first attempt to set up a local government in New Zealand was the Wakefield settlement formed in Wellington in 1840. The New Zealand Company, a privately financed settlement agency, required its male settlers to form a committee to set rates, appoint officers and make rules for the new colony. This conflicted with Governor William Hobson’s insistence that only the colonial government could levy rates and taxes. When the first New Zealand Company settlers arrived at what later became the city of Wellington, Hobson sent troops to disband their ‘illegal and treasonable body’.2
The first legislation to introduce local government in New Zealand, the Municipal Corporations Ordinance 1842, stated that any New Zealand district with a population of at least 2,000 constituted a borough. It could elect a council of residents to set rates, provide roads, wells, sewers and jails, and prevent fires and nuisances. The ordinance allowed all adult male residents, not just landowners, to vote. However, the colonial government found that this ordinance limited its authority to carry out activities such as building lighthouses, as these had to be referred to local councils. The ordinance was disallowed in 1843, setting back the development of local government in New Zealand for a decade.
At their own initiative, residents of settler communities began forming public works boards such as roads boards, and charging rates to pay for local roads, waterworks, sewers and bridges. If the settlement included a harbour, local boards also had responsibility for docks, landing places and lighthouses.
Any settlement regarded as urban rather than rural could be called a borough until 1926. After that date a settlement of at least 1000 people was defined as a town in an urban area, but a township in a rural area. From 1886 a city was officially defined as a town with a population of at least 20,000. However, under a traditional custom, a settlement of almost any size could call itself a city if it boasted a cathedral. Nelson enjoyed this status from 1858.
The first lasting local-authority structures were set up by the Public Roads and Works Ordinance 1845, which officially recognised local public works boards. It empowered local residents ‘to make and levy rates upon land for the maintenance and repairs of highways and other public works … under the direction and control of a certain number of such owners and occupiers to be elected as a Board of Commissioners’.3 By 1875 there were more than 300 road or other boards, many of them extremely small and with limited resources.
The New Zealand Constitution Act (UK) 1852 established six provinces – Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury and Otago – based on the six earliest colonial settlements. Southland, Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough and Westland were later split off from them. Between 1853 and 1876 each provincial council passed its own ordinances to create units of local government such as boards and boroughs, which then elected members with authority to develop streets, bridges, waterways, ferries and markets. By 1867, 21 boroughs had been formed, operating under varying structures and voting systems. Almost all were in Otago, reflecting its greater wealth due to discoveries of gold. By 1869 Otago province also boasted many paved roads, and both Otago and Canterbury operated railway lines.
The increasingly clumsy system of provincial governments hindered New Zealand’s social and economic development and was abolished in 1876. The Counties Act 1876 divided rural areas into counties based on the earlier district roads boards. Premier Julius Vogel announced that the act’s ‘great object’ would be ‘to secure the merging of the road boards into the Counties’.1 However, this amalgamation was voluntary and the number of single-purpose boards continued to increase. The 63 initial counties proved too small to effectively manage the host of facilities and services, such as electricity and water supply, and pest and weed control, that their ratepayers required. Instead, they generally limited themselves to providing and maintaining rural roads, as had the road boards before them.
Elizabeth Yates became the first woman mayor in the British Empire when she was elected mayor of the Auckland borough of Onehunga in 1893. Four male councillors and the town clerk immediately resigned in protest. Her election made news worldwide and Onehunga became an international tourist attraction. Yates had a stormy term in office and was defeated after a year. One local paper wrote, ‘The glory hath departed Onehunga.’2 No other woman was elected mayor in New Zealand until 1957, when Annie Huggan became mayor of Petone, near Wellington.
The Municipal Corporations Act 1876 provided a single nationwide system of government for town and city councils. The mayor was to be elected annually by the ratepayers instead of by the council, councillors came up for election every three years, and each ratepayer had up to five votes for council, depending on the value of their property. This law made no distinction between male and female property owners, thus giving women the vote in local body elections 18 years before they achieved full suffrage in parliamentary elections. In 1898 plural voting was abolished for boroughs and from 1910 all adults, not just property owners, could vote in them. (In counties, plural voting lasted until 1971.)
As the population grew in the late 19th century, most towns and cities became surrounded by suburban boroughs. Health, education, water supply and other services that had once been under the control of provincial governments could not be efficiently administered by these small local units, so a range of special-purpose authorities were set up to run them. These were not territorial local authorities, based on a specific geographical area, but ad hoc authorities, based on their function. In 1877 the control of education was vested in 12 education boards. In 1885 a state hospital system was placed under the control of 28 hospital boards. Other ad hoc authorities dealt with land drainage, river control, water supply and harbours.
By 1912 New Zealand, with a total population of just 1 million, was said to boast 115 counties, 113 boroughs, 56 town boards, 37 hospital boards, 38 river boards, 32 harbour boards, 20 fire boards, three rabbit boards, two tramway boards and one rabbit-proof fencing board. In total, the country had almost 4,000 territorial and ad hoc local authority bodies.
The proliferation of local authorities was due to two main factors – strongly localised interests and a short-sighted central government funding policy that encouraged large authorities to subdivide in order to receive more loans, grants and subsidies. From the 1890s central government made intermittent attempts to reform the local-government system, but could not gain enough political support to succeed. For example, the Local Government Bill 1912 aimed to do away with the roads boards and limit the number of towns, cities and counties. Local-body politicians feared that it would erode their power and centralise representation in Wellington, and the bill was not passed – but in practice the number of road boards did fall.
By the early 20th century councils in New Zealand’s main cities provided electricity and gas line networks, a piped water supply, tramways, domains and public gardens, libraries and swimming pools. Some added a wider range of civic facilities, including housing, sports fields, museums and zoos. The larger city councils also owned and ran a variety of business enterprises. Auckland City operated a fish market and fishing fleet, while Dunedin built a dam to generate hydroelectric power for local consumers.
For county councils, the main concerns remained roading, river control, and (for some) wharves. These facilities were funded by charging rates on property and by government subsidies and loans for specific purposes such as roads and sewerage schemes. In 1926 the Local Authorities Loans Board was formed to more closely monitor such borrowing.
First elected to Hamilton Borough Council in 1907, John Fow served on it, including two terms as mayor, until his death in 1943. A staunch Methodist, he disliked alcoholic drink, dancing, and men and women bathing together at the municipal swimming pool. There was much affection for Fow, and his funeral was the largest Hamilton had ever seen.
Rural local authorities with small populations tended to face the greatest financial difficulties. Their expenses on roads and other services were often comparable with larger and wealthier districts, yet their income from rates was far smaller. This problem became acute as the number of motor vehicles soared, and counties such as tiny Matakaoa, on the East Coast, found they were unable to provide roading of a sufficient standard. In 1922 a Main Highways Board was set up to supervise, and if necessary take over, the roading work carried out by counties. In 1936 nearly 6,500 kilometres of main highways were declared ‘state highways’ and transferred from county control to the Main Highways Board (later renamed the National Roads Board).
The Electric-power Boards Act 1918 allowed for the formation of district electric power boards to develop electricity supplies in rural areas. After the passing of the Soil Conservation and River Control Act 1941, catchment boards were formed to manage regional water supplies.
The town hall, council chamber or other premises used by the local government was one of the earliest important buildings in many New Zealand towns. The New Plymouth borough council, set up in 1876, described its first premises as ‘our Parliament, court, town board, meeting room, library, reading room, cardroom and resident’s magistrate’s office.’1
The economic depression of the 1930s forced many territorial and ad hoc authorities to amalgamate, regardless of local wishes. However, dissatisfaction with the overlapping responsibilities of local-government districts, and of local and central government, remained. A series of inquiries attempted to resolve these problems, but only one, in 1944–45, led to any definite action. It set up the Local Government Commission in 1946 as an independent review board with wide powers to recommend local-government restructuring and amalgamation. However, residents and ratepayers were usually able to overturn proposals to unite, merge or abolish local-authority districts, and little reform was achieved apart from boundary changes.
By 1956 the Auckland region’s population was overwhelmingly urban and growing rapidly. Services such as drainage and waste collection had become overloaded and uncoordinated, and the urgent need for better urban and regional planning finally overrode the parochialism that had blocked local government reform. In 1962 Parliament proposed a regional authority to carry out works and services over Auckland’s 32 municipalities and counties, and take over the functions of most of its special-purpose authorities. In 1963 the Auckland Regional Authority (restructured and renamed the Auckland Regional Council in 1989) was set up to serve the needs of the country’s largest city. Other regional authorities came into existence in later years and by the late 20th century most functions of the earlier ad hoc local authorities were under either regional or central control.
From the 1970s local and regional, as well as national, government was obliged to respond to increasingly well-organised and vehement community-based campaigns over many of their policies and decisions. Partly as a result of this grassroots activism, city and town councils expanded to provide a range of community activities and services. The first Citizens Advice Bureau opened in Auckland in 1970, and others followed to form a nationwide network. Pensioner housing, crèches, community centres and adventure playgrounds became part of the urban landscape, and councils developed close links with community welfare programmes.
The Local Government Act 1974 was a systematic attempt to rationalise the host of fiercely independent local government bodies. It abolished the historic distinction between urban local authorities (boroughs and towns) and rural authorities (counties), placing both systems under a network of united councils. As towns and boroughs expanded to absorb their surrounding rural areas, it was no longer necessary to transfer the newly acquired land from the county to the urban local authority. The two types of local authorities were finally given identical voting rights. The 1974 act also gave increased powers to the Local Government Commission.
Brian Elwood was chairman of the Local Government Commission during the dramatic amalgamations of the late 1980s. These included combining the various councils in the lower Hutt Valley into one, despite strong local opposition. Elwood said, ‘In order for a community’s history to be preserved, it is no longer necessary for that community to be serviced by an … independent service organisation.’1
The fourth Labour government, elected in 1984, and its immediate successors, implemented the most sweeping reforms of local government in more than a century. Labour had not offered voters a detailed manifesto for local government, and instead developed its proposals during its first term of office. It revised the Local Government Commission into a board appointed by the local government minister, Michael Bassett, a former Auckland city councillor. Only a majority vote by residents and ratepayers could overturn the board’s recommendations. In 1989 around 850 single- and multi-purpose local bodies were consolidated into 86 multi-purpose local authorities, including regional councils with broad environmental responsibilities.
In this period central government services were restructured on the basis of neo-liberal economic theory, and local authorities faced similar restructuring. In the past an elected mayor and councillors had controlled both the long-term policy and day-to-day operational functions of their local authority. The town clerk and city engineer were typically the most important paid employees, respectively responsible for administration and infrastructure. From 1989 a non-elected chief executive officer became the employer of staff, leaving elected councillors to focus on policy. The commercial operations of councils were separated from their non-commercial activities and run as Local Authority Trading Enterprises.
The Local Government Amendment Act 1996 introduced new and more rigorous financial management of council activities. The Local Authorities’ Loans Board was abolished, allowing local authorities to borrow directly from banks and financial institutions. They were required to prepare and follow long-term financial strategies – 10-year plans outlining their expected income and expenditure. As part of the move towards greater fiscal responsibility, many councils switched from charging a single sum per property in rates, to individual charges for specific services such as water supply, libraries or waste treatment.
By about 2000 many of the operations of local authorities had become businesses. Many of their functions, such as running ports, airports and trading enterprises, were removed from the direct influence of the voting public. To counter this loss of democratic control, and encourage greater participation in local body decision-making, the Local Government Act 2002 required local authorities to draw up and publicise long-term community plans, outlining in detail where they were heading, how they would fund their activities, and the rules and processes they would apply. This forced councils to pay greater attention to the needs and preferences of their citizens, while giving community members the information they needed to participate actively in local democracy.
Georgina Beyer became the world’s first openly transsexual mayor when she was elected mayor of Carterton in Wairarapa, north of Wellington, in 1995. She later became the MP for Wairarapa.
The Local Government Act 2002 also aimed ‘to enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities’. Any group of local residents could apply to their city or district council to set up a community board. In practice, this happened most often when small local authorities, such as the Wellington boroughs of Makara and Tawa, were to be absorbed by a larger body such as the Wellington City Council. The functions of these community boards varied, but generally they represented the interests of their communities, and considered and reported on matters referred to them by the territorial authority. In 2011 there were 143 community boards around the country.
Local-body politics have provided some of New Zealand’s most memorable political figures. Tim Shadbolt, a former student radical, became mayor of Waitematā City in 1983 while working as a concreting contractor. He celebrated the win by towing his concrete mixer behind the mayoral car. In 1993 Shadbolt became mayor of Invercargill. Defeated in 1995, he was re-elected in 1998 and was still in office in 2020.
In 2010 a new regional authority was established to administer the Auckland region. The Auckland Council merged the Auckland Regional Council with six territorial authorities, covering a region with over 1.4 million people. This ‘super-city’ combined the powers and functions of a regional authority for issues concerning its entire area. Council-controlled organisations operated many of the major infrastructure services formerly provided by the various local authorities, including public transport, water supply, economic development, the operation of major facilities, the inner city and waterfront, and the council’s commercial property portfolio.
Bush, Graham. Local government and politics in New Zealand. 2nd ed. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995.
Drage, Jean. Weaving a new pattern: women political leaders in local government. Wellington: Local Government New Zealand, 1997.
Drage, Jean, ed. Empowering communities?: representation and participation in New Zealand’s local government. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2002.
Drage, Jean, Jeff McNeill, and Christine Cheyne, eds. Along a fault line: New Zealand’s changing local government. Wellington: Dunmore, 2011.