Is Nelson really a city?

21:27, Jul 28 2014

When I first arrived in Nelson I sat at my desk pondering what to classify the place so I leaned over to born and bred Nelsonian Bill Moore and asked whether I should call it a large town or what.

I received a very stern "it's a city" clarification.

I may have facetiously scoffed and said "barely" before I got the rundown on Queen Victoria granting the hugely populated settlement of 5000 nestled in the shores of Tasman Bay a city status in 1858, which became more official a year later with a seated bishop.

Unfortunately, as I have now discovered, Queen Victoria's city legacy gives Nelson no legal standing.

"I'm sure it is something Nelsonians have pride in, but from a legal point of view it doesn't have any bearing apart from the historical honour," said Local Government Commission chief executive Donald Riezebos.

Statistics New Zealand defines a city from the Local Government Act, which today classes a place of dwelling as a city if it has a minimum population of 50,000, is predominantly urban in character, is a distinct entity, and is a major centre of activity within the region.


When Tauranga merged with Mt Maunganui borough in 1989 it lost its city title, instead becoming a district.

This was reversed in 2003 as its population reached a whooping 97,000.

Considering Nelson falls just under the 50,000 status could its city status be revoked leaving it as a district?

The answer is no.

Nelsonians can wipe their brows as this trophy cannot be taken away for not reaching the threshold as at the time it was declared a city it the population threshold was just 20,000.

During a 1989 nationwide restructure of local authorities Nelson was briefly abolished as a city and reconstituted as a new one under the modernised structure - a few months later the 50,000 threshold was brought in.

The figure change from 20,000 to 50,000 was almost plucked out of thin air, said Riezebos.

"I guess the status of city was seen as being something that needed a newer, more appropriate threshold," he said, especially as 20,000 was quite low and could have led to a few small places becoming cities when in modern times a city is seen as being a relatively large urban entity.

As an example, if Richmond nowadays was to keep up its growth and eventually want move into the city club it would need to explode from 12,276 to 50,000.

To make things more complicated Statistics New Zealand brings Nelson and Richmond together for the purpose of "urban living" statistics.

There is no legal or administrative bearing of the urban definition on the two places.

Richmond residents are seen to work and play in Nelson and are therefore lumped together with Nelsonians, giving an urban area population over the threshold, but when looking at the administrative boundaries of Nelson City it only includes 46,437 residents.

Riezebos said if amalgamation between the two councils was ever to happen it would be decided at the time whether a city or district council was formed, but he thought a district council would be more likely.

However, city or district, there is no advantage of one over the other - they are just titles.

For Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese, there is no question over Nelson's title.

"We are the best small city in New Zealand with a rich history and tradition and I have to say statisticians and bureaucrats are of little value in defining what is important about Nelson," she said.

"This has all the intrinsic qualities of a perfect city and I can tell you there would be a revolt of the citizens led by the bishop and mayor if there was any attempt to remove our city status."

The Nelson Mail