Chapter One

The Role of Local Government in Recreation

Before coming to Otago University in 1995 I had briefly flirted with mountain biking in hills surrounding my home in Waihi Beach. The mountain bike’s ability to go places that other bikes couldn’t, and the relatively long distances one could travel, made it a very attractive recreational pursuit. In my first few weeks in Dunedin I discovered a pamphlet, produced by the Dunedin City Council (DCC), describing six mountain bike tracks close to the city. Keen to ride these for myself I contacted my Student Loans manager for the required funds to purchase a bike. After taking my shiny new machine for a few rides around the city.(1) I decided I was ready to attack some real tracks. From previous mountain biking experience I expected gentle hill climbs followed by exciting down hill tracks. This expectation soon shattered with what I encountered in Dunedin. Most tracks were steep to ride up and when I finally reached the summit, travelling downhill involved muddy and rutted tracks making it difficult to stay on the bike. It became obvious that a high level of skill was required to successfully ride these very demanding tracks. This initial experience led me to question the DCC’s role in providing recreational opportunities for Dunedin citizens.

Mountain biking is a relatively new activity. It originated from the United States having developed in the late 1970s.(2) Mountain bike’s soon found their way into New Zealand in the early 1980s and they became particularly widespread over the last decade. Mountain biking requires a solidly constructed bike that is ridden in an off-road environment. Suitable areas include gravel roads, four-wheel drive tracks, firebreaks, and walking tracks.

Mountain biking belongs to a group of activities that take place in an outdoor setting and can be classed as both a recreational pursuit and an organised sport. Activities that fit this description include skiing, snowboarding, kayaking, surfing and rock climbing. All have organised competitions, giving them sport-like qualities but most participation has casual and informal characteristics.

The Hillary Commission estimate that 167 000 people regularly ride mountain bikes.(3) Mountain biking is more popular than traditional sports such as rugby, soccer and basketball. The growth of mountain biking illustrates a change in leisure patterns and places new demands on local authorities, which have traditionally supplied facilities for sports like rugby, cricket and soccer. As Graham Bush, an expert on local government in New Zealand, points out:

'People are participating in an ever-expanding range of activities, usually in a casual, unstructured fashion. Requisitions from organised sports for grounds, courts and arenas will still be received, but they have been joined by the demands of those whose penchant is for easy going, spur-of-the-moment leisure'.(4)

Local government plays a significant role in providing recreational opportunities. In Dunedin, the DCC provides nearly all the mountain biking tracks within riding distance of the city. While other landowners, such as farmers and forestry companies, allow mountain biking on their properties, riders typically use these tracks with prior arrangement. Therefore, the DCC has a major effect on where mountain bikers ride and the type and quality of facilities available.

Despite its popularity there are no specific facilities designed to meet the needs of mountain bikers in Dunedin. The six tracks promoted by the DCC as appropriate for riding were not constructed for mountain bike use. Originally built as fire breaks or walking tracks, these trails have been appropriated for mountain bike use. Yet, for other recreational pursuits, including walking and skateboarding, the DCC have provided facilities that are designed and constructed to meet their specific needs.

Local authorities can have a major influence on adventure sports such as mountain biking. Of particular interest to me is how the policies and strategies of the DCC affect mountain biking in the Dunedin area. This is a political question, the essence of which concerns the allocation and management of community recreational resources under conditions of newly emerging leisure interests. Underpinning the question are some more basic ones. What is the role of local government? What is the core business of local government? What is policy and how do local governments produce it? In what context does local government function in New Zealand? I will frame the answers to these questions with the concept of citizenship.

Citizenship and Local Government

The concept of citizenship and the rights of citizens is important in this discussion. Incorporating the work of T H Marshall, Avishai Margalit contends that social citizenship is essential in a decent society.(5) Social citizenship is the rights of citizens to social benefits such as health services, education and social security. The state's objective in providing these social benefits is to enhance the quality of life of its citizens. To adapt this argument to local authorities, I contend that recreations such as mountain biking create a range of benefits that justify their provision. For example, Dunedin mountain bikers identify benefits they receive from mountain biking as fitness and physical exercise, pleasure, enjoyment of scenery, challenge, escapism, and social benefits from social interaction.(6) These benefits will increase participants’ quality of life.

To avoid excluding some sectors of society all citizens must have the opportunity to gain these benefits. Dunedin mountain bikers have reasons to feel excluded if they compare what the DCC provides them with what other groups are provided with. Skateboarders have two skate parks provided by the DCC. Walkers have a choice of tracks ranging from the Botanical Gardens to the sub-alpine environment of the Pineapple Track. Cyclists have expressed this concern. In a call for-cycle ways and bike racks one cyclist suggests that, ‘cyclists are discriminated against, they are certainly not encouraged’.(7)

Margalit explains that citizenship is the responsibility of the state.(8) There are problems using the state as an analytical tool in the context of politics. The exact meaning of ‘the state’ has become so confused that there is little consensus on its precise definition.(9) Most definitions of state include common themes. These relate to its role in providing rule over a defined territory, its monopoly in the use of legitimate violence and the provision of citizenship. In New Zealand central and local government have the role of the state.

Before discussing the role of local government it is important to make the distinction between the two forms that exist in New Zealand. These are regional councils and local territorial authorities. Regional council’s main responsibility is enforcing New Zealand’s resource management legislation. They encompass areas which incorporate many smaller territorial authorities. Territorial authorities are the traditional municipalities. Depending on population size, they are called city or district councils. Those with a population of over 50 000 are city councils, those with less are district councils. In some areas, such as Wellington and Auckland, the regional council is responsible for parks and reserves and will affect mountain biking. However most local authorities manage parks and in Dunedin, the Otago Regional Council does not have any responsibilities in areas concerning mountain biking.

Distinction must also be made between local and central government. Significant differences exist between the two. Central government has supreme authority, sovereignty and extensive powers including legislating local government activities.(10) Local authorities provide vital infrastructure for the functioning of urban areas. This includes essential services such as water, sewage and roads. Councils also provide facilities such as libraries, sports grounds and public parks. It is contentious to call these facilities essential as not all citizens use libraries and parks. Why should they have to pay, through rates, for facilities they do not use? The answer to this question relates to the public good properties of these facilities and the concept of citizenship. To provide a framework for considering government intervention economists have developed the idea of citizenship into the concept of a public good.(11)

Public goods have one of two features. Firstly, they can be non-excludable. This means they cannot be withheld from one individual without withholding them from all.(12) For example, in Dunedin tracks can be used by anyone, be they Dunedin residents who pay for provision through rates, or someone from a different area. If the DCC wanted to stop outsiders using these tracks by erecting tollgates, this would also limit use by Dunedin residents. Secondly, public goods can have non-rival properties.(13) This means one person’s use does not detract from the quantity or quality of others. For tracks this criteria is problematic. Greater numbers of people using tracks will cause overcrowding and this may detract from a person’s experience. However, more people on the track may also enhance a person’s enjoyment because there are more people to interact with. The judgement on what functions are public goods is ultimately a subjective decision.

The DCC justify financing different activities in the annual plan. Outlined in this document is an explanation of why it provides recreation facilities. One of the seven goals it lists, one that guides the organisation’s direction, is the desire to ‘create and maintain a broad range of recreational, cultural and social opportunities…’.(14) Further, the funding policy states that the ‘…provision of facilities such as tracks, playgrounds and open spaces…generate a city-wide public benefit so are to be funded from the General Rate’.(15) Compare this with sports fields, which are not considered recreational facilities. These are financed on the assumption that only 20% of the costs incurred generate a public benefit.(16) Charging groups which use these fields makes up the balance of 80%. The DCC clearly state that tracks generate a public benefit and that is why these facilities are fully funded. I contend that the DCC’s desire to provide a range of recreational opportunities, while an admirable goal, is not being fulfilled. The DCC do not provide appropriate facilities for mountain biking that can be enjoyed by the average rider.

Using citizenship to define local government functioning raises a number of problems. One such problem is to what standard these services are supplied. Policy is the tool local government’s use to solve problems.

Policy and the Application of Politics

Policy contains sets of rules and procedures which offer strategies to solve problems. These rules may be very general or very specific depending on what the policy is attempting to achieve.(17) Policy results from the preferences of the actors involved. The outcome of policy can be explained in terms of the interplay between these actors. How they represent or are influenced by both their various preferences and the local conditions will affect policy outcomes.(18) Identifying how a change in policy occurs involves knowing what restrictions are present. The two most powerful influences on policy are precedent and status quo.(19)

Policy is also affected by external factors such as the economy and central government.(20) These factors place constraints on policy. An economic constraint is a restriction on the amount of money available to solve a problem. Due to scant financial resources large sums of money are unlikely to be spent on constructing mountain biking tracks. In the context of local government lack of money, or the priority of spending, becomes a political constraint. Political constraints are factors that politicians can control. Councillors determine the level of income by setting the rates. They can increase rates to provide more services. Whether they do so depends on their desire to maintain their position of power. For councillors this means the desire to maintain voter support at the triennial elections. Citizens are unlikely to vote for candidates proposing rate increases.

When discussing local government in New Zealand, the 1989 reforms must be emphasised due to the significant effect they had on local body functions. These reforms had far reaching consequences on local government functions and its political environment.

The 1989 Reforms to Local Government

Local government in New Zealand embraced massive reform under the Fourth Labour government. When Labour came to power in 1984, it had to quickly manufacture a local government manifesto.(21) Muldoon’s snap election had not allowed much time for carefully considered direction. Michael Basset, the Labour minister for local government who helped mastermind the reforms, believed they were pushed through in a very tight time frame.(22) This no doubt had an effect on the success of the reforms. The Local Government Commission, which had a significant influence on the 1989 legislation, detailed several objectives for local government to achieve. These included systems of units that were fewer in number and managerially and technically stronger. The Commission expressed a desire for congruity with existing rather than historical communities. The result: the numbers of territorial authorities reduced from 231 to seventy three and twelve regional councils were created from the previous twenty two regions.(23) Major restructuring of all local authorities at both political and officer levels caused major changes in senior staff and officers.(24) In short, the impetus of the reforms was mainly for structural change in local government. The reduction in numbers of local authorities supposedly meant local governments would be functionally efficient and effective, and more responsive to local preferences and needs. However, associated with these structural changes came a philosophy that the manipulation of finance was seen to best address priorities in the community. How this change affected recreation provision in Dunedin is discussed further.

The Battle for Tracks: Tyres versus Boots

A discussion on mountain bike access to tracks would not be complete without also mentioning walkers. As early as the 1870s the bicycle precipitated conflict between riders and other road users including pedestrians and coaches.(25) Over one hundred year’s later mountain bikes fuel hostility with other recreational users who consider tracks their territory. Wilderness walking, as a recreational activity, has been around since last century. Since the late 1980s mountain bikers provided a challenge to the 100 year-old dominance by walkers.

Don Douglass, President of International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), sums up the historical context of the land access debate from a mountain biker’s perspective:

'We did some things we shouldn’t have done, basically, we were not good members of the multi-use trail family. We went in and started running people off the trail and found out that they have a lot more clout than we do. We’re new kids on the block. We have no reputation for caring for and protecting the land. It was very easy for an influential long-term user to go to the land manager and say, ‘I got run off the trail and I’m not going to take it.’ And sure enough, boom – we’re outlawed'.(26)

It is worthwhile here to contextualise mountain biking in the national debate regarding track access in New Zealand. This debate centres on the Department of Conservation’s (DoC) decision to ban mountain bikes in National Parks.

As early as 1987 the Department recognised potential problems and conducted a study that reviewed the management of mountain biking on DoC land.(27) This study recommended that mountain biking is a valid form of outdoor recreation and worthy of accommodation on department land. Contrary to the study’s recommendations, DoC made use of the definition of a vehicle under the Transportation Act 1960. Under this legislation, bicycles are classified as vehicles and therefore are illegal in National Parks. DoC clearly favoured the status quo and if mountain bikers annoyed the experience of walkers then bikes needed to be outlawed. The first prosecution transpired in the Ohakune District Court on 11 April 1990.(28) Two men who were caught riding bikes in the Tongariro National Park were convicted and ordered to pay court costs of $65 each.

The increasing popularity of mountain biking prompted DoC to conduct a subsequent study in 1995.(29) This reiterated previous findings It has been over ten years since the Department first recognised problems with mountain bikes. In that time it has done little to broker a compromise. Although still viewed as inappropriate for New Zealand’s National Parks, DoC concedes that mountain biking is a legitimate recreation and provides facilities on a small number of non-National Park reserves.

DoC managers place the resolution of conflict squarely on the shoulders of mountain bikers. Neill Simpson, Queenstown’s field centre manager, believes that ‘so long as the cyclists are responsible then it is not a problem’.(30) In 1993 a spokesman for DoC stated that the department ‘is very keen to be able to work with the mountain biking clubs to identify good mountain biking areas and to legalise that where necessary’.(31) To date this has not happened.

The current situation is that mountain biking has the support of the minister of conservation and a number of regional conservatories. However the controlling Conservation Authority, a body which oversees DoC functioning, will not alter its position.(32) If this is the attitude adopted by the largest public land controlling authority in New Zealand, are the attitudes of smaller bodies, such as the DCC, conceivably different?


I intend to illustrate in this study how local authorities affect provision of recreational facilities. Mountain biking in Dunedin offers a case study. As described earlier, policy is the mechanism used to guide local government management. At the heart of policy analysis is an explanation of political behaviour.(33) This explanation requires the investigation of the actors involved in policy formulation, debates among them, identification of interest groups, reception of the policy and subsequent modifications. The two main actors in this study are mountain bikers (the users) and the DCC (the provider). Walkers play a minor but important role and have been addressed.

Important in contextualising mountain biking as a recreational pursuit is the investigation of its origin. To do this I have chosen to parallel the development of mountain biking with other adventure sports to offer an explanation of the activity as a cultural phenomenon. I have employed a range of sources including studies on other adventure sports and accounts from early mountain biking participants. Articles from periodicals and communication with an early participant have illustrated this growth in New Zealand. I have also investigated the formation of a national association of mountain bike enthusiasts.

To investigate mountain biking in Dunedin I incorporated a number of different sources. The main source has been the local mountain biking club, MountainBiking Otago.(34) I have analysed the club’s role as a mountain biking advocate and evaluated to what extent it has successfully lobbied the DCC on track issues. Although the club is not truly representative of the entire Dunedin mountain biking population it has proven to be the only group of riders active in promoting concerns to the DCC. MountainBiking Otago generously allowed me to sift through its records. These included meeting minutes, letters, newsletters and other documentation and all provided valuable information. The best source of information has been a weekly column, written since the club’s formation in 1989, in the Dunedin Star Midweek. Other local media reports in the Otago Daily Times have also unveiled information pertaining to the club. MountainBiking Otago is not the only mountain biking organisation in the city. In 1992, Jim McBride-Stuart founded the University Mountain Bike Club.(35) The University Club is concerned mainly with organising races and recreational rides and has not been active in advocacy issues so will only be given a brief mention.

Sources used to scrutinise the DCC are equally diverse. I contacted a number of staff from the Parks and Recreation Department and interviewed the officer responsible for developing outdoor recreational opportunities, Paul Coffey. The Chief Executive is also a significant actor in DCC and examination has revealed his notable influence. I attended a meeting of a sub-committee of the full city council and interviewed a long standing councillor, Josie Jones, to get an understanding of the political environment councillors make decisions in. Policy documents, including annual plans, management plans, specific recreational policies and the district plan have been examined. Other sources include local media reports and minutes of meeting. I have also analysed a number of studies concerned with the DCC’s functioning. These include research by a student in tourism and a number of papers presented at a local government conference.

I have reviewed literature to contextualise local government and its differing management approaches in providing recreational opportunities. Many of these studies are from leisure journals and relate to a British context. One book which has proven extremely valuable is ‘Local Government and Politics in New Zealand’ by Graham Bush. These studies outline various issues affecting the current problem. To offer suggestions on effective approaches I have examined literature concerning the management of mountain bikers. Illustrated in these studies are the specific needs of mountain bikers that differ from other track users. The Internet has proven a valuable source of information with newsgroups and dedicated websites aiding me in understanding the scope of the problem.


(1) DCC, Mountain Bike Rides in Dunedin, Parks and Recreation Department, 1995.

(2) C Kelly and N Crane, Richard’s Mountain Bike Book, Richard’s Bicycle Books Ltd, London, 1988.

(3) Hillary Commission, Sport Facts, Hillary Commission, 1997.

(4) G Bush, Local Government and Politics in New Zealand, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1995, p 156.

(5) A Margalit, The Decent Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1996.

(6) D Coughlan, Recreation Resource Conflict, Utilisation and Allocation, Post Graduate Diploma, University of Otago, Dunedin, 1994.

(7) ‘Mountain bikes’, Dunedin Star Midweek, 4 April 1990.

(8) Margalit, The Decent Society.

(9) See M Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Unwin, London, 1985; R Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society, Routledge, London, 1959; D O’Mera, Forty Lost Years: The Apartheid State and the Politics of the National Party 1948-1994, Ohio University Press, Athens, 1996.

(10) R Jansen, ‘Decentralisation: Devolution and delegation’, in P McDermott, V Forgie and R Howell (Eds.), An Agenda for Local Government: Proceedings from the New Local Government Conference 1995, Massey University, Palmerston North, 1995.

(11) Hillary Commission, Arts and Recreation: A Guide to the Local Government Act, Hillary Commission, Wellington, 1997.

(12) P M Johnson, ‘A Glossary of Political Economy Terms’, Auburn University, online at

(13) Hillary Commission, Arts and Recreation.

(14) DCC, Annual Plan 1998/99, Funding Policy 1997-2000, Long Term Financial Strategy 1998-2008, 1998, p 8.

(15) DCC, Annual Plan 1998/99, p 48.

(16) DCC, Annual Plan 1998/99.

(17) B Easton, The Commercialisation of New Zealand, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1997.

(18) I P Henry, The Politics of Leisure Policy, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1993.

(19) G Bush, Local Government and Politics in New Zealand, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1995.

(20) Henry, The Politics of Leisure Policy.

(21) Bush, Local Government and Politics in New Zealand.

(22) M Bassett, ‘The context of local government reform: politics, history and place: The New Zealand experience’, in P McDermott, V Forgie and R Howell (Eds.), An Agenda for Local Government: Proceedings from the New Local Government Conference 1995, Massey University, 1995.

(23) Bush, Local Government and Politics in New Zealand.

(24) J Harland, ‘Developing a long term strategic plan: An integrated approach’, in P McDermott, V Forgie and R Howell (Eds.), An Agenda for Local Government: Proceedings from The New Local Government Conference 1995, Massey University, 1995.

(25) W E Bijke, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1997.

(26) S Martin, ‘Mountain biking turns 10’, Bicycling, vol. 30, no. 9, November 1989, pp. 39-44.

(27) C Jenkins, All Terrain (Mountain) Bicycles in New Zealand: A Discussion Paper, Department of Conservation, Wellington, 1987.

(28) ‘First prosecution for illegal riding’, New Zealand Adventure, August/September 1990.

(29) G Cessford, Off Road Mountain Biking: A Review and Discussion, Department of Conservation, Wellington, 1995.

(30) ‘Walking and cycling tracks’, Otago Daily Times, 12 November 1992.

(31) ‘Mountain biking around Dunedin’, Otago Daily Times, 12 March 1993.

(32) G Wynn-Williams, ‘Speaking out’, New Zealand Adventure, issue 88, 1998, p 4.

(33) T Armstrong, ‘Sport and recreation policy: will she be right?’, Sporting Traditions, vol. 3, no. 2,1986, pp. 162-172.

(34) I am not a member of MountainBiking Otago.

(35) ‘Mountain Bikes’, Dunedin Star Midweek, 30 September 1992.