A short history of regional government in NZ

The recent government intervention in Canterbury, which led to the replacement of the Environment Canterbury’s elected council with government-appointed commissioners [click here to read more], has brought regional councils into the spotlight. Regional councils are responsible for the bulk of environmental management and regulation in New Zealand. But what is their history and does their history provide any clues to the plight that ECan finds itself in?

New Zealand’s early colonial history was in fact characterised by provincial government. Six provinces (Auckland, Canterbury, Nelson, New Plymouth, Otago and Wellington) were established in 1853, each with their own government. Subsequently a further four – Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough, Southland and Westland – were added. The provinces became agents of development within their areas, being responsible for surveys, land legislation, immigration, public works and harbours, education and hospitals, while small-scale local works were progressively delegated to borough councils and road boards.

But by the 1860s it was clear that the provincial system was a cumbersome system for such a small country. Since European settlement began in the early 19th century, communication had improved, with the introduction of steamships and telegraphs, and the shifting of the capital to the more central Wellington in 1865. Consequently, the need for semi-autonomous provincial government had diminished. Financially, most provinces had failed and, although Otago and Canterbury managed fairly well from their land-sale revenues, others could not maintain their functions without additional funding from central government. Finally, provincial government was brought to an end in 1875 under the Abolition of Provinces Act.

It was to be more than a century before the next enduring attempt to establish a regional tier of government (with the exception of Auckland, where an Auckland Regional Authority was established in 1963). However, a multitude of boards with natural resource management functions were established in the intervening decades. The most important such board from an environmental perspective were the catchment boards. These were set up under the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Act 1941, their primary purpose being to control flooding through the management of rivers and soil erosion. Other boards with environmental functions included drainage boards, pest destruction boards, noxious weed boards, and a phenomenal 600 “scenic boards”.

In 1974, Norman Kirk’s Labour Government enacted the Local Government Act, with the purpose of “rationalising local government by regionalisation”. While planning and civil defense were the only mandatory functions, any new regional functions were to be delegated to these new regional councils. However, democratically elected regional government was dealt a blow when Muldoon’s government came to power the following year. Muldoon’s government determined that elected regional councils were to be confined to the larger cities of Wellington and Auckland (the latter which in any case already had a regional authority), while the more “provincial” regions were to be represented by “united councils”, comprised of members appointed from the territorial authorities within the region.

Regional councils as we know them today were established in 1989, under the Local Government Amendment Act. Regional council boundaries approximately followed river catchment boundaries. This legislation rationalised the bodies carrying out functions at a regional and local level – reducing the catchment boards and other government bodies that had proliferated over the last century from more than 800 to 86. The newly created regional councils inherited a range of resource management responsibilities from the existing boards and councils, including for flood and erosion control functions transferred from the catchment boards and planning functions under the Town and Country Planning Act 1977, as well as transport and civil defense functions. But it was not until 1991, with the enactment of the Resource Management Act, that responsibilities under a cohesive and integrated resource management regime were delegated to regional councils.

But what of the significant challenges that regional councils face, and their ability to fulfill their natural resource management responsibilities in an increasingly challenging environmental landscape? These outstanding questions will be explored in an upcoming post.

See also: Resource Management Law in NZ – a potted history

[Photo top centre: Southland Provincial Council was established in 1861 and was in operation until 1870. This building was built in 1864 for a Masonic lodge, and purchased by the council for its meetings in 1866. It was later used by the Invercargill Borough and City Council, before being acquired by the Historic Places Trust in 1979. Permission of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust must be obtained before any re-use of this image. Middle centre: Pumping Station, Christchurch Drainage Board 1897. The Christchurch Drainage Board was constituted by a special Act of Parliament in 1875 to provide for the drainage of the city of Christchurch and surrounding districts. The Board was responsible for constructing a system of sewers for Christchurch and the suburban areas of Spreydon, Sydenham, St. Albans, Linwood and Riccarton. (Photo: Christchurch City Libraries). Bottom right: Strath Taieri Rabbit Board, Middlemarch Otago (Photo: Bryce Edwards);

Sources/further reading: The Public Value of Regional Government: how New Zealand’s regional councils manage the environment (2008), by Jeffrey McNeill; Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand; University of Otago Library Hocken Collection Bulletin no.31

3 thoughts on “A short history of regional government in NZ

  1. Paul Star April 17, 2010 / 11:47 pm

    You have neglected to mention Southland Province!

  2. envirohistorynz April 18, 2010 / 9:21 am

    Thanks Paul – just making sure everyone was awake – especially down there in the “southern provinces”! 😉 Now duly corrected. I have also requested permission from the Historic Places Trust for an image of the Southland Provincial Council Building at http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/southland-region/10/1 (one of only two original provincial council buildings still in existence in New Zealand, I understand – the others being the Canterbury buildings). If anyone has an image of their own I could use in this article, it would be greatly accepted with acknowledgments. Thanks again for your alertness.

  3. Anne Elliot September 19, 2014 / 12:51 am

    Love the photo of the Strath Taieri Rabbit Board building. Could it have been smaller? I don’t think so. Still right here in Middlemarch, on the old main street.

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