The Reform Party
The conservative Reform Party, led by William ‘Farmer Bill’ Massey, defeated the Liberals in 1912. They promised to offer Crown tenants the option to purchase freehold wherever possible. Tenants with a lease in perpetuity could pay a calculated amount to become freeholders. Other tenants were allowed to purchase at value, although there were limits on the area that pastoral tenants could buy. One scholar has described these as ‘extremely generous terms, terms that squandered the state’s future interest.’ 1
Land for settlements
The Reform Party kept the Land for Settlements Act 1894. Between 1911 and 1935 the Crown bought more land under this act than they had before 1911, most of which was in Auckland (511,757 acres), Canterbury (451,534), Otago (335,458) and Hawke’s Bay (264,979).
Under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act 1915 and further legislation in 1917, over 10,000 veterans of the First World War were assisted onto land. Some 3,000 of these were settled on Crown land, some of it marginal and remote in the central North Island, but also including holdings in Auckland and Northland. Over 5,000 veterans took up government loans to buy and develop properties, and others took up leases of Crown land under various forms of tenure. In all, over 4 millions acres (1.6 million hectares) was made available to ex-soldiers. Despite its dismal reputation, soldier settlement was not a catastrophic failure, except in the more remote areas, and even then it would have been more successful if the 1920s and 1930s had not been such bad years for agricultural exports.
Bridge to nowhere
Mangapūrua, up the Whanganui River, was one of the settlements opened up for soldiers returning from the First World War. The land was infertile, steep and prone to erosion because the bush had been cleared. A slow migration of soldier settlers out of the district began after the 1921 crash in agricultural prices, with the last settlers leaving in 1942. A bridge – known as ‘the bridge to nowhere’ – over the Mangapūrua Gorge is one of the few traces of the former settlement.
Freehold versus Crown leasehold tenure
By 1935 land ownership had stabilised and would remain largely unchanged for the next half-century. 32.5% of the land area of New Zealand was freehold, 26.7% was under Crown lease or licence, 23.4% was in public reserves, and the rest was either Māori land (6.8%), Crown land available for disposal (2.8%), or unfit for settlement (7.8%). In Northland and Auckland three-quarters of the occupied land was freehold and one-quarter leasehold. In the South Island, one-fifth of the occupied land in Otago, and two-fifths in Canterbury, was freehold. Pastoral farming, still a major agricultural activity, relied on Crown leasehold land.
Land for returned servicemen
The most significant development in land settlement in the mid-1940s was the purchase of land for soldiers returned from the Second World War. By 1953 the government had bought just over 1 million acres (405,000 hectares), which was their last major attempt to provide land for farming. About 60% of the land was in South Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago. One-third of all the farms purchased to resettle returned servicemen were in the South Auckland district and the rougher hill country of the Waikato and King Country.