Story: Local and regional government

Page 2. Early forms of local government

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1840 Colonial Office instructions

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

Competing governments

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 Lieutenant-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

Municipal Corporations Ordinance 1842

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.

First roads boards

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.

Cities, towns and boroughs

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.

Public Roads and Works Ordinance 1845

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.

Provincial government

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.

  1. Lord John Russell to William Hobson, 9 December 1840. British Parliamentary Papers. (last accessed 10 August 2021). Back
  2. Graham W. A. Bush, Local government and politics in New Zealand. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995, p. 12. Back
  3. W. B. Sutch, Local government in New Zealand : a history of defeat : reprint of a paper read on 23 May 1956 at the annual convention of the Institute of Public Administration at Auckland University College. Wellington: Industries and Commerce, 1964, p. 20. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Local and regional government - Early forms of local government', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 February 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Feb 2015