Changes in land holding
In 1870 the central government took major responsibility for public works and immigration. It wanted to build roads and railways through the North Island bush districts, and bought large areas from Māori for small-scale settler farming. In the North Island, private settler landholdings increased by 3.24 million acres (1.31 million hectares) between 1874 and 1886. To get farmers with little money onto land, the state increasingly leased property to settlers. In the South Island, profits, and the possibility of land values increasing because of railway development, prompted many pastoralists to purchase freehold large areas.
Land Act 1877
Provincial administrations were abolished in 1876. The Land Act 1877 updated provincial land legislation and created 10 districts, each with a Land Board, headed by a district commissioner of Crown lands and other members appointed by the minister of lands. Pastoral leases were for a term of 10 years, and deferred-payment schemes were offered to encourage family farms. For agricultural land, the maximum block was 320 acres (130 hectares), the deposit was one-tenth of the price, and the money could be repaid over 10 years so long as the leaseholder lived on the land and made improvements. Those who already owned 640 acres (260 hectares) or more could not apply, neither could married women. Leases for blocks of up to 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) could be repaid over 15 years. By 1892 over 1 million acres (404,000 hectares) had been taken up under these schemes by 7,687 settlers.
Land Act 1882
Under the Land Act 1882, pastoral leases were extended from 10 to 21 years and the so-called perpetual lease was introduced. Under this scheme land was offered at a maximum rent of 5% of the value per annum. Once again, residence on the land and improvements were required. Under these terms 4,525 settlers took up 1.3 million acres (530,000 hectares) by 1892.
How long was a perpetual lease? Under the original act of 1882 the term was 30 years, with the right of renewal for a further 20. In an age when life expectancy for males was about 50 years, this must have seemed like perpetuity.
Land Act 1885
John Ballance, who was later New Zealand’s first Liberal premier, passed another Land Act in 1885. It created a class of small grazing runs of up to 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) for smaller sheep farmers. Rent was only 2.5% of the value and, since the land was often rough bush country worth only about five shillings an acre, farmers were charged extremely low rents so they could put their money into stock and improvements.
The act also allowed settler associations to establish special settlements of smaller farms on deferred payment or perpetual lease. By the mid-1890s, some 76 associations with over 2,500 members had taken up almost 500,000 acres (202,342 hectares). Another type of village settlement was established with similar conditions, which allowed people to take up 1-acre (0.4-hectare) sections, and was designed to appeal to unemployed people in towns.
Land ownership in the 1880s
While some sharp inequalities of land ownership remained, access to some land was very widely distributed by the 1880s. In 1882 more than 71,000 individuals were listed as freeholders – about half the adult male settler population. About 47% of freeholders owned land worth less than £250. Despite a large increase of adult males between 1882 and 1902, the rate of land ownership remained constant at about 50%. When Crown leaseholds are added to the total, approximately 60% of adult Pākehā men had access to land over those two decades. Even small areas provided opportunities – smallholdings allowed wage-earning families to grow enough food to feed themselves and profit from the sale of any surplus produce.
Complaints over land monopoly
Land ownership remained controversial throughout the 1880s. The boom in land prices in the 1870s had collapsed by 1878, the price of wool declined, and New Zealand had slipped into economic depression. Banks and finance companies foreclosed on mortgagees who could not pay their interest. Between 1870 and 1895 the area of land in private or company ownership increased fifteen fold, whereas the number of owners only increased four fold. In 1891 more than 60% of freehold land was held by fewer than 600 individuals or companies.
In colonial New Zealand, some individuals, families and companies controlled huge tracts of land. Robert Campbell held eight stations in Canterbury, Otago and Southland – with a total of almost 1 million acres (404,000 hectares). The Studholme family owned or had shares in eight properties in the South Island covering 361,000 acres (146,000 hectares), and in the North Island they owned 547,000 acres (221,000 hectares) across five stations.
This concentration of land frustrated many would-be landowners. Freehold estates had been combined, especially in Canterbury; and the difficult economic times of the 1880s sharpened issues around land. A generation of New Zealand-born settlers wanted land, partly due to new opportunities for exporting meat and dairy products following the advent of refrigerated shipping in 1882.
From 1889 the newly formed Liberal Party reasserted the ideal that all aspiring to be farmers were entitled to land. The most influential figure in the Liberals’ land policy was John McKenzie, whose outlook had been shaped by his experiences and observations in his native Scotland.