Local government in New Zealand

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New Zealand has a unitary system of government in which the authority of the central government defines sub-national entities. Local government in New Zealand has only the powers conferred upon it by the New Zealand Parliament.[1] In general, local authorities are responsible for enabling democratic local decision-making and promoting the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of their communities, as well as more specific functions for which they have delegated authority.

As of 2020, seventy-eight local authorities cover all areas of New Zealand.[1] Local authorities are positioned within a two-tier structure of territorial authorities (district and city councils) and superimposed regional councils. In addition, district health boards are locally-elected bodies with responsibilities for oversight of health and disability services within a specified area, although these boards are not generally considered to be local authorities in the conventional sense.


The model of local government introduced after New Zealand became a British colony in 1840 had nothing in common with the tribal system practised by Māori.[2] The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, a British Act of Parliament, established six provinces in New Zealand—Auckland, New Plymouth (later to be renamed Taranaki), Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago—based on the six original planned settlements.[3] These provinces were largely autonomous; each had an elected council and an elected chief official, called a superintendent.[3] The New Provinces Act 1858 allowed for the creation of Hawke's Bay, Marlborough, Southland (abolished 1870) and Westland provinces, established between 1858 and 1873.[3][4]

The Constitution Act also allowed the creation of municipal corporations, or local governments, within provinces. Municipal corporations could be overruled by the province in which they were located.[5] One of the first municipal corporations established was the Wellington City Corporation, created in 1870.[6]

The provinces have broken down because of their coming into conflict with the colonial government on many points, and especially on points of finance. Their doom was only a question of time, when it became obvious that they could not raise their own revenue; that they had to look to the general government to supply deficiencies; and that they could not borrow without the colony becoming liable.

— Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel, 1876[7]

The provinces were abolished in 1876 so that government could be centralised, for financial reasons. Provincial councils were dependent on central government for revenue, and all except Otago and Canterbury were in financial difficulties at the time of their abolition.[4] Since then, Parliament has been the single and supreme source of power[8]—local authorities are created by Parliament, can be abolished by it, and are responsible for discharging functions assigned by it. The former provinces are remembered in regional public holidays[9] and sporting rivalries.[10]

From 1876 onwards, councils have had distributed functions, which vary locally. A system of counties similar to other countries' systems was instituted and persisted with few changes (except for mergers and other localised boundary adjustments) until 1989, when the Fourth Labour Government completely reorganised the local government system by implementing the current two-tier structure of regions and territorial authorities and reducing the number of local bodies from approximately 850 to 86.[11]

Auckland Council is the newest local authority. It was created on 1 November 2010 following a three-year process that began with the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance. Picking up on one of the Royal Commission's recommendations, the Fifth National Government combined the functions of the existing Auckland Regional Council and the region's seven previous city and district councils into one "super-city".[12][13][14] Since then, the Local Government Commission has had a role considering changes to New Zealand's local government structure. Further amalgamations (of the councils in the Nelson-Tasman region, the Hawkes' Bay region, the Wellington region, the three Wairarapa districts, and the West Coast region) have been mooted but did not receive sufficient public support to progress further.[15] Applications for secession from Auckland Council for the North Rodney and Waiheke Island communities have also failed.[16]

Legislative framework[edit]

The New Zealand Government (by introducing bills, promulgating regulations and recommending Orders in Council) and the New Zealand House of Representatives (by enacting legislation) determine the overarching structure and delegated functions of local government. The general principle is that local government in New Zealand may only do what it is specifically authorised to do, and may not do anything that it is not authorised to do.

The following is a list of key local government statutes.

Legislation conferring responsibilities on one or several local authorities may be passed from time to time (such as the Wellington Town Belt Act 2016).


As defined in the Local Government Act 2002, the purpose of local government is:

  • to enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities; and
  • to promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities in the present and for the future.[18]

Between 2013 and 2019, the second purpose statement was, instead, "to meet the current and future needs of communities for good-quality local infrastructure, local public services and performance of regulatory functions in a way that is most cost-effective for households and businesses."

Oversight and accountability[edit]

Local authorities are functionally independent but are subject to audit requirements (for example, of their financial statements and plans) through Audit New Zealand under the authority of the Controller and Auditor-General.[citation needed] In addition, the Department of Internal Affairs carries out some monitoring functions on behalf of the Minister of Local Government, who has a range of intervention functions that he or she may exercise in response to a poor-performing council. For example, the Minister may appoint a Crown observer or, in extreme situations, remove the elected members and appoint commissioners. However, the primary way that local authority elected members are held accountable is through the triennial local elections.


Map of regions (coloured) with territorial authorities delineated by black lines. City names are in all upper case, and district names have initial capitals.

New Zealand has two tiers of local government. The top tier consists of regional councils, of which there are eleven.[1] Regional councils are responsible for activities such as environmental and public transport planning. The second tier consists of territorial authorities, of which there are sixty-seven: thirteen city councils, fifty-three district councils and Chatham Islands Council.[1][19][20] Territorial authorities manage the most direct local public services, such as water supply and sanitation, road infrastructure, and museums and libraries. Together, regional and territorial authorities are called local authorities.

Five territorial authorities (Auckland Council, Gisborne District Council, Nelson City Council, Tasman District Council and Marlborough District Council) are unitary authorities and perform the functions of a regional council in addition to those of a territorial authority. The local authority for the outlying Chatham Islands has its own legislation (the Chatham Islands Council Act 1995, which replaced the Chatham Islands County Council Empowering Act 1980) and has unique powers similar to those of a unitary authority.[21]

Most territorial authorities are wholly within one region, but six districts (Rotorua Lakes, Taupo, Stratford, Rangitikei, Tararua and Waitaki) fall within two or more regions. There is no formal reporting relationship between a regional council and the territorial authorities in its region, but they work together on some matters including civil defence and regional planning. The Local Government Act 2002 provides for the establishment of joint committees of multiple territorial authorities for these purposes.

The external boundaries of a local authority can be changed by an Order in Council or through notice in the New Zealand Gazette.[22] Several outlying islands do not fall within the jurisdiction of any territorial authority; for those islands, the Minister of Local Government acts as the territorial authority. The Department of Internal Affairs provides administration on behalf of the minister.[23]

Regions 11 non-unitary regionals 5 unitary authorities (2 cities and 3 districts) Chatham Islands Kermadec Islands
New Zealand Subantarctic Islands
Three Kings Islands
Territorial authorities 11 cities and 50 districts
Notes 6 districts lie in more than one region These combine the regional and the territorial authority levels in one Special territorial authority New Zealand outlying islands outside any regional authority (the outlying Solander Islands form a part of the Southland Region)

Governance and management[edit]

Each elected council is responsible for the local authority's governance and employs a chief executive, who is responsible for its management. The chief executive's role, outlined in the Local Government Act 2002, is to advise the council and implement its decisions, as well as employing staff and ensuring that all of a council's legal responsibilities are attended to. The term of a chief executive's employment is for up to five years, which may be extended to a maximum of seven years. Much of the governance and regulatory responsibilities of councils are transacted by committees or by the chief executive's staff, under delegation from the full council, although the level of delegation varies between councils. Councils may also choose to establish and delegate functions to companies or trusts (known as council-controlled organisations or council-controlled trading organisations when the local authority has the majority interest).

Regional councils and territorial authorities have different statutory responsibilities from one another, as well as other key differences in terms of their governance structures.


There are eleven regional councils and five unitary authorities. Regional council duties include:

Regional councils are funded through rates, subsidies from central government, income from trading, and user charges for certain public services.[2] Councils set their own levels of rates, though the mechanism for collecting it usually involves channelling through the territorial authority collection system.[25]

Cities and districts[edit]

The territorial authorities consist of thirteen city councils, fifty-three district councils and one special council for the Chatham Islands.[19] A city is defined in the Local Government Act 2002 as an urban area with 50,000 residents.[26] A district council serves a combination of rural and urban communities. Councillors are either elected through wards or at large. An additional member is the mayor, who is elected at large and chairs the council.[26] Like regional councils, they too set their own levels of rates.[25] Territorial authorities manage the most direct government services, such as water supply and sanitation, local transport infrastructure, the approval of building consents, public health, and libraries, museums and recreational facilities.[24] While Parliament sets the roles of local government in legislation, the level and type of services supplied are determined locally in public meetings.

Community boards[edit]

Territorial authorities may establish and delegate powers to community boards. The boundaries of community boards may be reviewed before each triennial local government election; this is provided for in the Local Electoral Act 2001.[27] These boards, instituted at the behest of either local citizens or territorial authorities, advocate community views but cannot levy taxes, appoint staff, or own property.[20] Auckland Council has, and other unitary authorities may (but do not yet) have, a system of local boards, which have a different set of responsibilities and accountabilities to community boards.

District health boards[edit]

New Zealand's health sector was restructured several times during the 20th century. The most recent restructuring occurred in 2001, with new legislation creating twenty-one district health boards (DHBs). These boards are responsible for the oversight of health and disability services within their communities.[28] Elections for seven members of each district health board are held alongside elections for territorial and regional authorities. These members are directly elected by residents of their area, at-large (except for the Southern District Health Board, which draws its members from two constituencies), using the single transferable vote system. In addition, the Minister of Health may appoint up to four members. The Minister of Health also assigns who will be the chair and deputy chair of the board. There are currently twenty DHBs.[28] The Minister has power to replace a Board considered to be performing poorly; Commissioners have been appointed on three occasions.[29]

In April 2021, the Sixth Labour Government announced that the system of district health boards will be abolished and replaced by a single agency to be called Health New Zealand.[30] In addition, a new Māori Health Authority will be set up to regulate and provide health services to the Māori community.[31]

Three waters reform programme[edit]

Water supply and sanitation in New Zealand is provided for most people by infrastructure owned by territorial authorities including city councils in urban areas and district councils in rural areas. As at 2021, there are 67 different asset-owning organisations.[32]

A major programme of nationwide reform is being developed by central government, with the aim of rationalising the provision of services for the three waters. It is proposed that a small number of large publicly owned entities will be established to own and manage the three waters assets across the country. The reforms include complete separation of asset ownership from the existing territorial authorities. The nationwide reform programme is being developed in partnership with local government and iwi/Māori as the Crown’s Treaty partner.[32]

Charges for water services typically represent around 40% of a rates bill in an urban area.[33] In a submission on the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill 2016, the Hauraki District Council made the following comments about the sustainability of local authorities if the revenue associated with water and transport were transferred to other bodies:[34]

We note and share LGNZ’s concern that removing a large degree of a rural local authority’s expenditure through transferring water and transport services to another body will have significant financial implications for the sustainability of that local authority. The net effect of such transfers, particularly in geographical areas comprising a number of rural local authorities, could be the need for the formation of larger authorities – amalgamation by stealth. It is of upmost concern to us that our local democracy and decision-making could be lost as a result.


Each of the regions and territorial authorities is governed by a council, which is directly elected by the residents of that region, district or city every three years in October. The Local Electoral Act 2001 sets out the common framework for election management and permits, to some extent, for each council to determine its own electoral arrangements. Councils may choose their own:

  • voting method (either paper-based booth voting or all-postal voting);
  • electoral system (either first-past-the-post voting or the single transferable vote);
  • the number of members on the council, excluding the mayor (between 6 and 29, except for Auckland Council which is fixed at 20);
  • whether those councillors are elected at-large or through a system of wards (and decide the boundaries for those wards);
  • whether the district will have dedicated Māori representation; and
  • the order of names on the voting document.

At the regional council level, wards are known as constituencies. Because of the geographic and populational size of regional councils there is a legislative requirement for each regional council to have at least two constituencies. Other than Auckland Council, territorial authorities may also choose whether or not to establish one or more community boards, which form the lowest and weakest arm of local government.[35]

Electors of territorial authorities directly elect their city or district's own mayor, alongside local councillors and (if established prior to the elections) community board members. Regional councils do not have a directly-elected mayor; instead, a chairperson is chosen from within the ranks of the elected councillors by the council at its first meeting following the elections.

Due to the primary revenue stream of many territorial authorities being property taxes (rates), electors are entitled to register and vote in the local elections of cities, districts and regions where they pay rates but do not reside. About 12,700 such ratepayer votes were cast in 2016.[36]

Ward/constituency establishment and boundary decisions[edit]

Every six years, the Local Electoral Act 2001 requires councils to review their representation arrangements. Unlike for the boundaries of parliamentary electorates, which are determined by an independent commission, councils make their own representation decisions. In the year prior to an election, the outgoing council may determine the number of members it has after its next election, and whether those members are elected by wards/constituencies or at large. The council may also consider whether to establish (or disestablish) community boards. Councils are required to give consideration to "fair and effective representation" when making their decisions. Appeals on council decisions for general representation arrangements may be appealed to the Local Government Commission. If a council's decision does not meet the statutory definitions of fair and effective representation then it is automatically appealed.

Māori representation[edit]

Although in 2006 Māori formed 14.6% of the population,[37] a Ministry survey found that 12% of candidates not elected at the October 2007 local elections were Māori and only 8% of winning candidates were Māori. By contrast the 66% of the population who are European had 84% of losing candidates and 90% of winning.[38] The inequality was marginally smaller in 2016, with 89.8% of elected members being European and 10.1% Māori.[39]

A feature of New Zealand's parliamentary representation arrangements is the system of Māori electorates, which are for electors of Māori descent who choose to be registered on the Māori electoral roll and are intended to give Māori a more direct say in Parliament. Equivalent provisions for local government are set out in section 19Z (and following) of the Local Electoral Act 2001. These provisions are opt-in and allow territorial authorities and regional councils to introduce Māori wards (in cities and districts) or constituencies (in regions) for electoral purposes.[40]

The number of members elected to a council through its Māori wards or constituencies is determined after determining the total number of councillors for the city or district or region, in proportion to the number of members elected to the council through its general wards and constituencies, such that:

The number of members excludes the mayor, who is elected separately. The total electoral population includes all electors in the city, district or region, regardless of whether they are on the general electoral roll or the Māori electoral roll. The number of Māori members is rounded to the nearest whole number. If the calculated number of Māori members is zero, the council must resolve against having separate Māori and general wards.[41]

Māori wards and constituencies can be established by decision of the council, or through a local referendum (called, under the Act, a "poll"). If a council resolves to establish Māori wards or constituencies, it must notify its residents of their right to demand a poll on the establishment of the wards and constituencies (the "poll provision"). If a petition signed by 5 percent of the electors of the city, district or region is presented to the council, the poll must be held within 89 days. The result of the poll is binding for two local body elections, after which the council may retain the status quo or adopt another change.[42] All electors may demand and vote in a poll (not specifically electors of Māori descent or those on the Māori electoral roll).

If a council has not determined to establish Māori wards or constituencies, electors may demand a poll on whether Māori wards or constituencies should be established under the same process outlined above. A council may itself determine to hold a poll.

History of Māori wards and constituencies[edit]

Introduction and resistance[edit]

Māori wards and constituencies have proved contentious, as the poll provision (outlined above) has frequently overturned councils' decisions. While a general establishment provision has been available since 2002, the first Māori constituencies were established for the Bay of Plenty Regional Council in 2001 under a unique piece of legislation. Population ratios were such that the council was able to establish three Māori constituencies. The introduction of Māori wards and constituencies was supported by the Labour, Alliance, and Green parties, it was opposed by the conservative National Party, the populist New Zealand First Party, and the libertarian ACT Party.[43][44][45] (While he supported the 2002 amendment to the Local Electoral Act, the Green Party co-leader, Rod Donald, though not his Party, had opposed the Bay of Plenty legislation due to its compulsory nature and preferring Single Transferable Votes.[46][47])

In 2006, the National Party MP for Bay of Plenty, Tony Ryall (who had been Minister of Local Government for six months in 1998–1999), moved a private member's bill seeking the repeal of both pieces of Māori ward legislation, arguing that, since the opt-in provisions in the Local Electoral Act 2001 had not been used in four years, the wards were "unused... antiquated... not necessary [and] divisive." The motion failed.[48] After this, efforts were made to establish Māori wards in some territorial authorities, although these all failed after polls were demanded.

In 2010, Māori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell sought a law change to make it compulsory for all councils to have Māori seats. At that time, Bay of Plenty Regional Council was still the only local authority to have Māori representation. Flavell's proposal failed, but not before it was declared to be inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 due to using a different Māori representation formula that the Attorney-General stated would "lead to disparity in representation between Māori wards... and general wards."[49][50] The difference was that the formula used the number of people of Māori descent rather than the number of people on the Māori electoral roll.

In October 2011, the Waikato Regional Council voted 14–2 to establish two Māori seats in preparation for the 2013 local body elections.[51] A poll was not demanded and the constituencies were established.

In 2014, the Mayor of New Plymouth Andrew Judd proposed introducing a Māori ward in the New Plymouth District Council. The council resolved to do so, but was defeated in a 2015 referendum by a margin of 83% to 17%. The backlash Judd experienced was an influence on his decision not not to run for a second term during the 2016 local body elections.[52][53] In April 2016, Flavell, now a Māori Party co-leader, presented a petition to the New Zealand Parliament on behalf of Judd that advocated (as Flavell had done previously) the establishment of mandatory Māori wards on every district council in New Zealand.[54] In June 2017, a private members' bill in the name of Marama Davidson sought to remove the poll provision, but was defeated during its first reading.[55][56]

A poll on establishing Māori wards at Wairoa District Council was held alongside that council's October 2016 triennial election and was successful: elections for three Māori seats at that council were held in October 2019.[57] Following this result, five territorial authorities (Palmerston North City Council, Kaikōura District Council, Whakatāne District Council, Manawatu District Council, and Western Bay of Plenty District Council) approved, in separate decisions over late 2017, to introduce Māori wards for the 2019 local elections.[58][59][60][61][62] In response, the lobby group Hobson's Pledge (fronted by former National Party and ACT New Zealand leader Don Brash) organised several petitions calling for local referendums on the matter of introducing Māori wards and constituencies, taking advantage of the poll provision.[63][64] These polls were granted and held in early 2018.[65][66][67] Each poll failed; Māori wards were rejected by voters in Palmerston North (68.8%), Western Bay of Plenty (78.2%), Whakatāne (56.4%), Manawatu (77%), and Kaikōura (55%) on 19 May 2018. The average voter turnout in those polls was about 40%.[68][69][70][71]

The rejection of Māori wards was welcomed by Brash and conservative broadcaster Mike Hosking.[72][73] By contrast, the referendum results were met with dismay by Whakatāne Mayor Tony Bonne and several Māori leaders including Labour MPs Willie Jackson and Tāmati Coffey, former Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell, Bay of Plenty resident and activist Toni Boynton, and left-wing advocacy group ActionStation national director Laura O'Connell Rapira.[71][74][75] In response, ActionStation organised a petition calling on the Minister of Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta, to change the law so that establishing a Māori ward uses the same process as establishing a general ward (general wards are not subject to the poll provision, but have a different appeals process through the Local Government Commission).[76] The Labour Party has supported changes to the laws regarding Māori wards and constituencies; two bills were introduced by backbench Labour MP Rino Tirikatene in 2019 (the first a local bill seeking permanent representation for Ngāi Tahu on the Canterbury Regional Council; the second a member's bill to ensure that the repeal of legislation establishing Māori seats in Parliament must be subject to a 75% supermajority of Parliament), but both failed.[77][78]

Seven territorial authorities have determined to establish Māori wards ahead of the 2022 local elections (Whangarei District Council, Kaipara District Council, Northland Regional Council, Tauranga City Council, Ruapehu District Council, New Plymouth District Council, and South Taranaki District Council).[79][80][81][82][83][84] While polls for some of those districts have been signalled,[85][86] Mahuta has stated that removing the poll provision is "on her list" for the Sixth Labour Government's second term.[80][87][88]

Legislative entrenchment[edit]

On 1 February 2021, Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta announced that the Government would establish a new law upholding local council decisions to establish Māori wards. This new law would also abolish an existing law allowing local referendums to veto decisions by councils to establish Māori wards. This law would come into effect before the scheduled 2022 local body elections.[89][90] On 25 February, Mahuta's Local Electoral (Māori Wards and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Act 2021, which eliminates mechanisms for holding referenda on the establishment of Māori wards and constituencies on local bodies, passed its third reading in Parliament with the support of the Labour, Green and Māori parties. The bill was unsuccessfully opposed by the National and ACT parties, with the former mounting a twelve hour filibuster challenging all of the Bill's ten clauses.[91][92]

See also[edit]


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