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Official Guide to the Government Court: N.Z. Centennial Exhibition

Lands & Survey Department

Lands & Survey Department

Among the pioneer workers in New Zealand none played a more exacting part than the surveyor. To him was allotted the task of exploring, surveying and mapping a country which was, for the greater part, a tangled wilderness of fern and forest intersected in all direction by great ranges of hills and mountains.

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Mountain torrents, rivers and streams formed further formidable obstacles to progress, so that the pioneer surveyor had to be a man of indomitable spirit in order to carry out his important work. The survey and disposal of lands to individuals for occupation under freehold or leasehold title is one of the fundamental functions of Government in a new country, and on this account the activities of the Department of Lands and Survey had a very early beginning and played an important part in the settlement of New Zealand.

During the early years efforts were concentrated upon the work of exploration and survey of lands held by the Crown so as to complete schemes of roads and subdivisions, and large additions were continually being made to the area thrown open for public application. In addition to ordinary selections, areas were allotted on systems of special settlement, such as immigration, military grants, and others.

Foremost in the control of the New Zealand Land Company settlements at Wellington, New Plymouth, and Nelson, were surveyors who inaugurated a system of survey to meet requirements of the district they controlled.

In 1840, when New Zealand was established as a Crown Colony, one of the most important administrative offices was that of Surveyor-General. He was responsible for the administration of the survey of the lands of the Crown. The office, however, was abolished in 1895, for, owing to the difficulties of communication, it became necessary to establish at each centre of settlement a Survey Office under the control of a Chief Surveyor. During the period of Provincial Government until. 1876 each Provincial Office instituted a system of survey adapted to the needs of the district. These systems were not uniform in character, and in many districts it was not possible to guarantee with any degree of accuracy the location of the boundaries of sections. Each system had its merits, but continual complaints from the Inspector of Native Surveys, who was responsible for the issue of native land titles, led to a conference of Chief Surveyors at Wellington in 1876. As an outcome of this conference the Government decided to obtain a complete report on the survey systems of the various provinces and submit to the Government a recommendation.

This report was presented to the Government and, as a result, it was decided to appoint a Surveyor-General who would be responsible for the establishment of a uniform system of survey, controlled from a central office in Wellington. As a result, in a few years, a complete triangulation network had been thrown over the whole Dominion. Twenty-nine initial stations were established throughout New Zealand, to which all surveys within their respective districts were related. By these means the overlap of boundaries was overcome, and it became possible for the Crown to guarantee the areas and measurements of all future lands alienated from the Crown.

For the purpose of land designation and simplicity of record, the Dominion was divided into 1005 Survey Districts, with sides of 1000 chains. These Survey Districts, which were generally divided into 16 blocks, became the index of reference for location purposes. This system has been in operation in New Zealand ever since, except that it has been found necessary to carry out a geodetic triangulation owing to the overlaps in the original circuits. The early triangulation treated the earth as a plane surface, that is, no account was taken of the curvature of the earth. The geodetic triangulation network was commenced in 1912 and at present, 1939, the whole of the North Island and one third of the South Island has been completed.

The Field Staff of the survey branch of the Department carry out surveys required under the Land Act, Public Works Act, Native Lands Act, and Land Transfer Act, and also specialised surveys, such as triangulation standard traverses, maintenance of survey marks, precise levelling, and typographical surveys. The office page 52 staff are responsible for the examination and compilation of survey plans, the drawing of maps for cadastral and general purposes, and the general control, organising, and recording of all matters relating to the survey and title of land.

During the period of the Provincial Government (1853-76) each province had its own staff dealing with the survey, disposal, and administration of Crown lands; but, following the abolition of the Provinces, a national system for both surveys and general land administration was inaugurated. Under the provisions of the Land Act, 1877, land districts were established, each district being under the control of the Commissioner of Crown Lands, who was also Chairman of the district Land Board. The head of the land administration was the Minister of Lands, whose executive officer was the Secretary of Crown Lands (later termed the Under-Secretary), while the Surveyor-General controlled the surveys of the colony, a local Chief Surveyor being appointed for each land district. The basic principles of this system obtain to-day.

The various tenures governing the disposal of Crown land haye undergone many changes over the years since settlement commenced in New Zealand, and it is impossible in this article to discuss the various phases in detail.

The freehold by direct purchase for cash or by purchase on a system of deferred payment was favoured by some of the earlier administrations. Later, leases with perpetual rights of renewal, as well as the lease in perpetuity (a straight-out lease for 999 years at a uniform rent) were introduced.

In addition to the disposal of land on settlement conditions, the disposal of large areas of pastoral country suitable for sheep-grazing has been a feature of land administration.

In the early nineties the growing scarcity of land suitable for public selection became increasingly apparent. The necessity of quickly settling as much of the country as possible had resulted in a great deal of land being held in large runs and blocks, while the rapid development of refrigeration brought about a great expansion of trade, and the public demand became insistent for more and still more farms. It was met in part by opening Crown lands in smaller areas, by offering land that had previously been considered somewhat unattractive, by making available forest reserves that had been milled, and by the purchase of large areas from the natives. These measures, however, proved insufficient, and finally a Land for Settlements Act was passed in 1892 enabling the Government to acquire from private persons suitable properties for subdivision and leasing as farms. Land settlement provisions con- tained in this Act were extended by subsequent legislation, and since the inception of the scheme 735 properties, consisting of over 2,000,000 acres, have been purchased for closer settlement at a cost of nearly £14,000,000, resulting in the settlement of many thousands of farmers on the land.

From the year 1915 onwards, the Department was entrusted with the important work of providing land for settlement by soldiers returning from the Great War. As a result of operations under the Discharged Soldiers' Settlement Act, 1915, approximately 10,000 returned men were placed on the land, while a further 12,000 were assisted to purchase or erect houses.

Another important work which has engaged the attention of the Department has been the carrying out of extensive land drainage schemes such as those in the Hauraki Plains and the Rangitaiki Plains.

The preservation of bush, including the provision of reserves for general purposes and to meet the recreational needs of the people, has been a prominent feature of the Department's activities. In this connection the number of scenic reserves controlled bv the Department is now 1118, covering a total area of over 819,000 acres, while public domains and national parks comprise an area of over 3,000,000 acres.

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From its inception, it has been the aim of the Department to provide, as far as land resources permitted, reasonable opportunities for settlers to take up land from the State. At the present time there is only a comparatively small area of land suitable for settlement remaining in the hands of the Crown, while more or less intensive settlement has taken place throughout the Dominion. Owing to the fact that there is no longer available any considerable area of Crown land suitable in its natural state for subdivisions and closer settlement, the Department has devoted attention during recent years to the improvement of areas of idle Crown land capable of development, and the reconditioning of deteriorated Crown lands. At the present time approximately 150,000 acres of such land is under development by the Department acting in conjunction with the Small Farms Board.

In days gone by the Department, in addition to its ordinary functions of survey and disposal of lands of the Crown, was entrusted with the work connected with immigration, together with some of the functions now carried out by the Department of Agriculture, the State Forest Service, the Tourist Department, and that part of the operations of the Public Works Department dealing with roods and bridges.

To-day the main functions of the Department may be summarised as follows:

  • The leasing and other disposal of lands vested in the Crown.
  • The control of surveys.
  • Development of lands and the advancing of moneys to tenants to carry out development works.
  • Purchase of private land for settlement purposes.
  • Administration of the Small Farms Scheme.
  • Administration of scenic and historic reserves, national parks, and public domains.
  • The carrying out of drainage schemes promoted by the Crown.