Early Years: The Postwar Era
The Local Government Commission was established on 16 April 1947, following the assent of Governor-General Sir Bernard Freyberg. Its first chairperson was Judge Israel 'Izzy' Goldstine. It was established following a parliamentary select committee inquiry in 1945 that identified concerns with the proliferation of local authorities with overlapping functions and jurisdictions, leading to perceptions New Zealand was "overgoverned" and was incurring excessive administrative costs. During this postwar era there were over 700 local authorities, including 260 county and borough councils, and a range of special-purpose authorities from road boards to hospital boards and rabbit control boards.
The Commission's functions were outlined in Section 12 of the Local Government Commission Act 1946. It was established to "review from time to time the functions and districts of local authorities and to inquire into proposals and prepare schemes for the reorganisation thereof and generally to review and to report to the Minister upon such matters relating to local government as may be determined by the Commission or referred to it by the Minister."
Despite the intentions of the original parliamentary inquiry, the first Commission was unable to carry out wholesale reorganisation. However, it did make some modest changes. It successfully negotiated the amalgamation of six Northland Hospital Boards by 1954. It was able to significantly improve the procedures for boundary changes between authorities and create a body of standard practice. In particular, it aimed to prevent endless tinkering with boundaries by ensuring that any change was sufficient to meet community needs at least 15 years into the future. It also educated local authorities on the need to apply proper town and country planning principles to boundary changes, instead of making them at whim.
The first Commission was severely affected by the loss of valued staff. On 18 March 1949, the former Secretary to the Commission Frank Stephens and Acting Secretary Doughlas Jeune were killed in an air crash in the Tararua foothills near Waikanae. A further tragedy occurred when the chairman, Judge Goldstine, died suddenly in 1953 at the early age of 54. In the postwar period of labour and skills shortages it was difficult to find replacement staff. Until the end of its term in 1953, the first Commission struggled to find resources.
Steady As She Goes: 1950s To 1980s
The number of ad hoc bodies continued to grow. Hospital boards and rabbit boards were outside the authority of the Commission. By 1960, half a dozen counties had amalgamated with others, and the long obsolete river, road and town boards continued to dwindle, but there was little other change.
After 1960, a trend emerged for certain kinds of ad hoc bodies, such as harbour boards and fire boards, to merge with their territrial local authorities. Harbour boards were under increasing pressure from the decline of coastal shipping trade and the onset of containerisation. The functions of the old-style rabbit boards were taken over by county councils.
The most important new development was the establishment of the Auckland Regional Authority in 1963. The opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1959 gave huge impetus to the development of the North Shore, and helped launch the city's population growth. Governance was already fragmented among many small local boroughs such as One Tree Hill, Onehunga and Newmarket. The spread of settlement southwards engulfed previously rural areas and villages like Pukekohe and Manukau.
The establishment of the Auckland Regional Authority was an Auckland initiative, spearheaded by the Mayor, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson. A wide range of functions was defined as regional: bulk water supply, main sewerage, main public transport arrangements, the airport, milk distribution, regional roads and reserves, and civil defence. The Auckland Regional Authority was directly elected by the electorate, rather than indirectly by the territorial authorities.
A directly elected Wellington Regional Council was also formed in 1980, with more limited functions than those of Auckland. It has responsibility for regional planning, civil defence, regional parks and reserves, urban water supply, forestry, and urban public passenger transport planning.
Other social changes began to affect the traditionally limited and somewhat passive functions of local government during the 1970s and 1980s. There was a considerable increase in the range of services provided by territorial local authorities. The increasing political activism of women changed the makeup of elected members and staff of local bodies and new concepts of management began to circulate. Important as these are as background factors, they are not part of the history of the Local Government Commission itself.
The Era of Reform: The 1980s Onwards
The election of the Fourth Labour Government in 1984 ushered in a period of extremely rapid, wholesale reform of the machinery of government. A foreign exchange crisis at the time of the election contributed to a drive to save costs across all branches of government.
The new administration sought to increase efficiency by rationalisation and reorganisation, including the corporatisation and privatisation of some functions traditionally performed by government. In December 1987, the Minister of Internal Affairs announced a reorganisation of local authorities throughout all of New Zealand (except the Chatham Islands) by October 1989.
The Commission under Sir Brian Elwood spearheaded this enormous task. This was the most active period in the Local Government Commission's history. Consequently, the Commission was temporarily enlarged to six members.
The distinction between regional and united councils was abolished and the whole of New Zealand was divided into 14 regions with directly-elected regional councils. Around 850 local bodies were consolidated into 86 multi-purpose local authorities.
Boundaries of regions largely conformed to water catchment areas to ensure integrated management of water supply, rivers and related matters. Counties and boroughs were abolished. Auckland and Wellington were greatly shaken up, with many small suburban bodies abolished. For local reasons, Gisborne was a partial exception. Because of its isolation and large erosion-prone hinterland, its district council exercised the powers of a regional council.
The Local Government Commission also acquired an important new function as both an appeal authority and an arbitrator. It was required to make a triennial review of wards and membership of local authorities, and to hear appeals. It could also hear appeals on draft reorganisation schemes, proposals for the constitution of new authorities, and proposals for the reorganisation or abolition of communities.
The Commission in the 21st Century
The Local Government Act 2002 made significant changes to the framework governing local authorities. It replaced the 1974 Local Government Act, which had become largely obsolete.
The Local Government Commission was defined under the Act as a body corporate with full powers and perpetual succession. It maintained the powers of a Commision of Inquiry, including the ability to summon witnesses, request certain information, and receive evidence.
It consisted of three members appointed by the Minister of Local Government, one of whom was to be conversant with tikanga Māori. This reflected the much greater concern of government with issues of partnership under the Treaty of Waitangi.
The Commission's powers were significantly redefined to those set out on our "What we do" page.
In October 2007, under Chair Sue Piper the Commission adopted its Māori name, Mana Kāwanatanga ā Rohe. This is literally translated to "the authority for governance of districts. The name was chosen because both its literal and conceptual meanings appropriately convey the Commission's functions and responsibilities.
Changes to the Reorganisation Process
The Local Government Act 2002 was further amended in December 2012. It significantly changed the process for reorganisation of local authorities. The purpose of reorganisation was defined as improving the effectiveness and efficiency of local government by:
(a) Providing communities with the opportunity to initiate, and participate in considering, alternative local government arrangements for their area; and
(b) Requiring the Commission, in consultation with communities, to identify, develop, and implement in a timely manner the option that best promotes good local government.
The 2012 changes allowed anyone to lodge a reorganisation application. During the first full year of the new process, there were four applications, three of which were from local authorities. They were related to local government in Northland, Hawke's Bay, Wellington and the Wairarapa.