The Department of Internal Affairs

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Local Government in New Zealand - Local Councils


Local government in New Zealand


What is local government?

Local government is the system of locally elected members representing their communities and making decisions on their behalf.

Local factors such as geography, the environment, ethnic make-up, economic opportunities and health can be better taken account of by locally elected councils charged with making decisions that affect their communities.

These decisions can relate to the effective and efficient provision of services to meet community needs, to regulation of certain functions, to facilitation of local activities to pursue community goals. In making these decisions, councils have to report to their communities in a clear and accountable way.

Local authorities cannot achieve their objectives alone. They work closely with central government and with other organisations, public bodies, businesses and citizens.

The relationship between central and local government

Parliament is elected to deal with issues relevant to New Zealand as a nation and to its people in general.

Local government works in much the same way. Individuals elect representatives to local authorities, to work on solutions for local issues. This includes providing an infrastructural and planning framework in which communities can grow and the economy can flourish.

Everything local authorities do is within the legislative framework established and maintained by Parliament or central government. Some statutes also establish councils’ accountability to central government for delivering a function or for the expenditure of some grants and subsidies.

What have been the key changes for local government?

Over the last 20 years there have been several changes to the structure, role and powers of councils.

  • New Zealand’s local government structural arrangements were significantly reformed in 1989, when approximately 700 councils and special purpose bodies were amalgamated to create 86 local authorities.
  • As of 1 November 2010, the 1 regional council and 7 territorial authorities that make up the Auckland area were amalgamated further to form the Auckland Council unitary authority.
  • As a result of these changes, there are now 78 local authorities, comprised of 11 regional councils and 67 territorial authorities (city/district councils and unitary authorities).

Learn more about the history of local government in New Zealand by visiting The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Local government is separate from central government. However, in some instances, specific statutes may establish responsibility or accountability relationships between local authorities and central government agencies or ministers. While local authorities raise much of their own funding, central government provides funding or subsidies toward particular activities (primarily roading).

Image of a New Zealand Beach

The following themes provide the context for local government –

  • Local democracy – local people electing local people to make decisions on local issues.
  • Diversity – to recognise the diversity that exists within New Zealand and the variable circumstances faced by councils (including geographical, financial and social).
  • Local choice – to reflect the diverse circumstances of individual councils, and to promote public participation in their community's governance.
  • Local accountability – local authorities are primarily accountable to their communities (for decisions taken and outcomes achieved) rather than to central government or the Minister of Local Government.

In the 1990s there was a focus on increasing the transparency of council decision-making, efficiency and effectiveness, and accountability.

This lead to the main statutes of local government changing when Parliament passed the Local Electoral Act 2001, the Local Government (Rating) Act 2002 and the Local Government Act 2002. These provided councils with more flexible powers and tools to work with and for their communities.

Several new Acts also clarified councils’ functional responsibilities (such as the Resource Management Act 1991, the Biosecurity Act 1999, the Maritime Transport Act 1993 and others).

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