The history of land legislation and settlement in New Zealand reflects the social, economic, and political pressures of the times. In the earliest years of planned settlement, attempts were made to put into practice the colonising theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield by charging a “sufficient price” for land. In 1853, to meet the urgent need of the infant colony for population, Governor Grey initiated a policy of providing cheap land for settlement. This policy and concentration on pastoral farming in time brought about the problem of undue aggregation of farm land. The development of dairying in the 1880s, coupled with unemployment in the towns, saw the Liberal Government adopt a policy of closer settlement to aid the establishment of small farmers. Since then, land settlement policy has been based on the principle of “one man, one farm”, and land legislation has been directed towards closer settlement of farm land and the prevention of undue aggregation. Since 1929 the State has gone beyond its previous role of subdividing and financing settlers on to undeveloped land and has, itself, carried out large-scale land development work before offering the land for settlement. Experiments in land settlement have been numerous, and legislation voluminous and complicated, successive Governments leaving a legacy of diverse tenures for Crown land. Because of this involved history only the more important trends are outlined.
This article deals in turn with early land purchases before 1840; settlement from 1840 to 1852; the provincial era until 1876; the period of early general Government legislation until 1890; Liberal land policy for closer settlement, 1891–1911; settlement since 1912; and present-day land policy and development.