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A Guide to Local Government

The following information is a synopsis of information available in the DecisionMaker Guide to Local Government published by DecisionMaker Publications 2004 (see our Disclaimer and Copyright information). The full text is available on:

This information is also available here in the following languages:*
*These brochures are in Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) format. To access these documents you must have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer. You can download a free version from the Adobe site.

Foreword by Hon Chris Carter, Minister of Local Government

Central government is responsible for drafting the laws and regulations that govern New Zealand. But the communities that make up our country all have distinctive issues of their own. A solution to a problem that suits one community may not suit them all. Different communities need some flexibility to make their own local decisions.

For these reasons we have a system of central and local government. Central government deals with the national picture. Local government deals with what happens in local communities.

The key characteristic of our system of government is that people have the opportunity to participate at all levels. Citizens can help shape and perhaps even guide the direction of their country, or they can help shape and guide the direction of their community. In fact, government is the responsibility of all New Zealanders.

In her foreword to the DecisionMaker Guide to Parliament and Government the Governor-General, Dame Silvia Cartwright, said:

“Just as we expect our democracy to work for us, we have to work for our democracy. This means taking part in the decision-making process. This means voting, participating in public life and contributing to the business of our nation”.

It is the Local Government Act 2002 and the Local Electoral Act 2001 that provide the legislative basis to reinforce Dame Silvia Cartwright’s sentiments at a local level.

Consequently, I am very glad to welcome the DecisionMaker Guide to Local Government, which now joins the DecisionMaker Guide to Parliament and Government. Together, these guides form a comprehensive and easy-to-read resource for everyone who wants to understand, and involve themselves in, our dual government systems.

Hon Chris Carter MP
Minister of Local Government

Why should we know about local government

Unless we have a problem with our rates or rubbish collection, few of us think about local government until the hoardings go up and the voting papers arrive. But local government provides the framework on which our communities are built. Many of the decisions that have the greatest effect on people’s lives are made by local, not central, government.

While we get on with our lives, our elected local body representatives and the employees of our territorial or regional council are quietly making sure that all the things we take for granted, such as clean streets, safe parks for the kids, a quality water supply, pest control, attractive town centre and more, are provided in a timely and cost-effective way so that our local community is a comfortable and attractive place to live.

We have a right to have a say in local government – and a need to speak out to protect and advance our interests. But our voice is more likely to be heard if we understand how local government works. This article explains what local government is, what it does, where it fits in New Zealand’s system of representative democracy, and how you can be part of it. It is an excerpt from the DecisionMaker Guide to Local Government, which aims to give citizens the information they need to shape local government and have a say in how things are run. The full text is available in English on

What is local government?

Our form of government is representative democracy. We elect people to represent us in both Parliament and the council chamber, as well as on a number of other local governance bodies such as district health boards and school boards of trustees.

At local government level, in particular, there are many opportunities for us to express our opinion about the activities of those who make decisions on our behalf. We can lobby for our ideas, reply to requests for submissions, even stand for council ourselves!

There are two main types of local authority – regional councils and territorial authorities (cities or districts). These are autonomous and are accountable to the communities that they serve. They provide a vast range of services – from flood control to reserves management, rubbish collection to local tourism – funded largely by rates and regulated by a series of local government acts.

New Zealand has twelve regional councils. These are responsible for managing the broad-spectrum well-being of the entire region they cover. So they deal with concerns such as:

management of the effects of use of fresh water, coastal waters and air
biosecurity control of regional plant and animal pests
river management, flood control and mitigation of erosion
regional land transport planning and contracting of passenger services

  • harbour navigation and safety, marine pollution and oil spills
  • regional civil defence preparedness.
In addition, there are 74 territorial authorities, comprising 16 city councils and 58 district councils. They deal with day-to-day issues that contribute to the well-being of the people that live in their community, such as:
  • community well-being and development
  • environmental health and safety (including building control, civil defence, and environmental health matters)
  • infrastructural services (roading and transport, sewerage, water/stormwater)
  • recreation and culture
  • resource management, including land-use planning and development control.
Four local authorities provide the functions of both a regional and a territorial authority, and are called unitary authorities: Nelson City Council and Gisborne, Tasman, and Marlborough District Councils.

Standing for council

Local Government New Zealand encourages prospective candidates through a direct mail-out to various media and selected organisations. The information covers the role that local government plays in the community, and how interested people can stand for their local council. Find out more by calling 0508 9 10 2004.

Central and local government

Local councils communicate with central government agencies on behalf of their communities to ensure that communities will be able to appropriately identify well-being outcomes, and to build up realistic expectations about what government can and should do to help. They also lobby central government on behalf of their communities.
All central government agencies have opportunities to communicate government’s roles and priorities in their relevant sector, to provide information they may have about communities and their agencies’ activities, and raise awareness of particular issues.

Other local government organisations

Councils carry out their work through and in collaboration with a number of other organisations that they own or of which they are members.

Community boards

Community boards provide a level of local government below city and district councils. Community boards can be set up anywhere there is sufficient demand for them, if the territorial authority agrees. In 2003, 45 councils had community boards. The role of each board varies according to the delegation from council, but might include:

  • representing the interests of its community
  • considering and reporting on matters referred to it by council, or of interest or concern
  • maintaining an overview of council services to the community
  • preparing an annual submission to council for expenditure
  • communicating with community organisations and special interest groups.

Council-controlled organisations

Council-controlled organisations (CCOs) can take a range of forms, including a company, a trust, or an unincorporated joint venture. CCOs can also be owned by more than one council.

Local governance entities

New Zealanders also have a voice in how their communities develop through a number of other organisations that offer services in local communities and that are elected or appointed to represent the interests of that community.

Licensing trusts

A trust is a board of elected representatives (separate from the council) that administer premises selling liquor within the boundaries of its district. Popular anti-liquor sentiment in the 1900s promoted the concept of licensing trusts as a form of public ownership.

The first licensing trust in New Zealand was established in Invercargill in 1944, and in 1949 the Licensing Trust Act was passed. At the turn of the 21st century there were about 26 licensing trusts in operation. Licensing trusts traditionally invested in local liquor outlets, and more recently in restaurants, and may in future focus on other local investments.

Licensing trusts were based on:

  • the sale of liquor in a particular area being controlled by the people in the community, through elected representatives
  • profits from the sale of liquor remaining in the community, going into providing quality facilities and support for community projects.
If your area has a licensing trust, you will be asked to vote for a representative at the same time as you vote for your council and district health board representatives.

District health boards

There are 21 district health boards (DHBs), with seven elected members, and four members appointed by the Minister of Health, who also appoints the chair and deputy chair. DHBs are responsible for providing or purchasing Government-funded health care services for the population of a specific geographical area. The statutory objectives of DHBs are to improve, promote and protect the health of communities; to promote the integration of health services, especially primary and secondary care services; and to promote effective care or support of those in need of personal health services or disability support.

DHBs are expected to show a sense of social responsibility, to foster community participation in health improvement, and to uphold the ethical and quality standards commonly expected of providers of health services and public sector organisations.

District health board (DHB) elections are held at the same time as local authority elections. DHBs are responsible to the Minister of Health. They use the local election approach in order to bring a community voice into DHBs.

School boards of trustees

Boards of Trustees are locally elected boards that govern state and state integrated schools. Boards establish a charter, which sets out the aims and objectives of the school. Elections are held every six years. Finance, property, staffing and employment matters are among the biggest responsibilities for the board, while the principal manages the school within the policy limits the board has set down.

You can stand for election if you are over 18, registered to vote, a New Zealand citizen, and not a teacher at the school.

“With more than 16,000 positions for elected representatives, elections for school boards of trustees are the biggest exercise in participatory democracy in New Zealand,” says Ray Newport, chief executive of the School Trustees Association.

The Local Government Commission

The Local Government Commission (LGC) is required by the LGA 2002 to report to the Minister of Local Government on key issues after the 2007 triennial local government elections. LGC is required to review the operation of the LGA 2002 and the Local Electoral Act 2001.

The review must at least determine and assess:

  • the impact of conferring on local authorities’ full capacity, rights, powers and privileges, and
  • the cost-effectiveness of consultation and planning procedures
  • the impact of increasing participation in local government and improving representation on local authorities.'
The Commission comprises three members appointed by the Minister. It has the powers of a Commission of Inquiry.

How you can participate

People participate in local government in many ways – not just at election time. A democracy needs its citizens to take part in its government in order for it to remain democratic. The fewer people actively involved, then the less truly representative it is. Each and every person has the responsibility to participate to one extent or another.

Some of the ways that people can be part of local democracy are:

  • informing themselves about the candidates and voting in elections for local authorities, school boards, district health boards, and other community boards and organisations
  • standing for election in one of these
  • making themselves available to be nominated to join a relevant specialist committee or board such as health board advisory committee, local trust board or council-controlled organisation
  • attending council meetings and meetings of other community organisations
  • making representations about issues relevant to their local community
  • reading and making submissions on the long-term council community plan (LTCCP) and other council plans and proposals.
However, for most people, the greatest opportunity to influence the direction of council comes on election day. Every three years, our communities elect people to represent them on the local council and the community boards. In 2004 the closing date for votes is the 9th of October. By listening to what candidates say in the run-up to the election, and by using our vote to support the ideas we want to see expressed, we can join with others of like mind to achieve the kind of council we want.

Enrolling to vote

All citizens and permanent residents of New Zealand who are aged 18 or over are eligible to vote, and must enrol as a voter. You must enrol if you have not already been enrolled for a New Zealand general or local body election. If you have been enrolled before, you will need to update your details – such as a new postal address – if they have changed.

Local and national enrolment combined

All local and central government election campaigns begin with a mailout to all enrolled electors asking them to check that their details are correct. If details are incorrect, they need to make the changes, date, sign and return the forms. If the details are correct, they do nothing. If enrolment forms are received by post at an address that the voter has left, people living there must redirect it to the current address if known, or to send it back marked ‘Gone No Address’. If this occurs, that person or persons may be taken off the roll. The campaign is supported by a multimedia advertising campaign. People who are not enrolled are encouraged to find out more and enrol at a Post Shop or via post, the Internet ( or free phone 0800 36 76 56.

Non-resident ratepayer enrolment campaign

Local authorities encourage nonresident ratepayers to vote in all areas where they pay rates. Many people are not aware that, if they pay rates in an area in which they do not reside, they are also entitled to vote in that area as well as the one in which they usually live. SOLGM has produced an information insert for local authorities to include with their rates invoices. People can find out more by calling 0508 9 10 2004 until the end of August 2004.

Postal voting

In the past, people voted at local polling booths. Now, all elections for local government, district health boards and any licensing trusts are being managed by post. Enrolled electors receive voting documents by post and send them back to the relevant electoral officer by post. At some time in the future, people may be able to vote online. As well as information on the candidates and vacancies, voters are sent voting documents with information on both the Single Transferable Voting (STV) and First Past the Post (FPP) systems to enable them to vote effectively.

Making it happen

The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) has oversight of local authority elections. The Ministry of Health has oversight of the District Health Board (DHB) elections. Local Government New Zealand encourages people to stand for election.

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Last updated: 21/03/2006