The question is – what is a paper road and what rights do landowners have regarding them?

Personally, I’ve never come across one.  But my husband has.  He works as an ecologist and is often called in when people want to subdivide their property.  As a result, he spends a bit of time poring over maps trying to work out how to get access to various locations.

“Normally these things are not marked as roads at all but sometimes you come across what – on the map – looks like a road until you get there and find it certainly isn’t – it turns out to be a muddy farm track, with gates and fences and you have to turn around and go out of your way another 20 miles.  And then it gets dark.

Obviously paper roads can be a source of irritation, at some levels, but they can be the cause of much more serious and long lasting grief.  Readers of this website’s forum can attest to that – every so often postings are made where relationships between neighbours have soured around paper roads.

So, what are they, where do they come from, what is the law surrounding them – and has any great poetry been written about them?

What are they?

I got in touch with Dave Chowdhury, who is the senior communications advisor at Land Information New Zealand.  He then consulted with the Department of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Agriculture who threw in their understanding of these things called paper roads.

Firstly, they say, a paper road is a term commonly used for a road that is legally established and recorded in survey plans, but has not been formed.  Legislation around road management, however, doesn’t generally distinguish between unformed and formed roads (excluding highways.)  Down to the nitty gritty, these roads (unformed and formed) are governed by the Local Government Act 1974.

Lloyd Button at Waikato District Council adds a paper road is usually a 20-metre wide corridor with no formed vehicular or pedestrian access and is not part of the Council’s maintained road system.  Unformed roads (OK guys, I’ll start dropping the paper bit and refer to them as unformed roads!) often traverse farmland and are grazed by the adjoining property owner.

What’s their history?

Lloyd says most were established by the government during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century to provide for future access to large tracts of land, however many were not laid out over suitable topography. 

Most roads – including unformed roads – came into Council ownership and control from the Crown but the exceptions are, as we saw earlier, state highways which remain under Crown control.

Prior to 1892, the creation of roads was the primary means for reserving land alongside waterways for public purposes, says Dave.  “While other roads were set out in anticipation of settlement and transport needs that never materialised or have since disappeared.”

How many of the things are there?

Dave at Land Information NZ says no precise statistic exists but unformed roads are numerous throughout the country – “in some districts possibly similar in volume to formed roads.”

Almost all are in rural areas and have existed for many years.

Within the Waikato alone there are believed to be more than 600km of unformed roads, says Lloyd but agrees that no one really knows the full extent.

Paper roads and the Law

I tried talking to a few lawyers on this one and no one was too keen to engage in the subject.  Lloyd was helpful however.

  • The public has the right to use unformed roads.  “However, as these roads often pass through farmland and are not marked, it can be very difficult to know exactly where the road is without survey.  There may also be stock, fences and gates on and across the road. They may also cross steep hill country or traverse swampy ground quite unsuitable on which to construct a physical road.”
  • No structures are permitted on unformed roads although, if the boundaries have not been defined there may be some unknown to the council – or the occupier.
  • These roads can often provide legal access to blocks of land at some distance from formed roads and they can also be used for access to lots when subdividing land.
  • Unformed roads are generally occupied by and maintained by the adjoining owner at no cost.  It is not, he adds, financially possible for the Council to fence and maintain all its unformed roads (and remember this is just Waikato District Council – other councils may differ).  Where a dispute arises between neighbours Council will resolve how the land is to be used.
  • No rates are payable of unformed roads, regardless of occupation.
  • And finally, Council may allow use through a ‘licence to occupy’ – but this does not provide exclusive use.

What’s good about them?

Dave Chowdhury and his advisors say unformed roads help provide access to public areas, providing a buffer between properties and a legal frontage.

They are also a potentially valuable public resource.  “The Walking Access Consultation Panel is considering their use for recreational access.”

In fact, this panel will be reporting to the Minister for Rural Affairs on a range of issues related to walking access to land within the next few months.

And the downside?

From time to time, he says, concerns arise with access being blocked by the adjoining landowner.  “Also there are sometimes concerns about identifying the exact location of unformed legal roads, and concerns that some are not practically useable, especially by vehicles, because of the terrain they traverse.”

As Lloyd says, Waikato District Council will step in when disputes develop.

What is the most common question asked?

This was put directly to Lloyd Button and he said every year the Council gets a few requests to purchase a section of unformed road (usually related to the subdivision of adjoining land.)

“A request and a firm commitment to stop and purchase unformed roads - or parts of – involves consultation with the adjoining owners, various departments of Council, external parties if affected (such as DoC) and public notification.  It may take many months before the land is finally acquired and transferred to the new owner.”

Are they unique to New Zealand?

In a word, says Dave, no.  “Other countries do have unformed roads but the situation varies considerably.”

So.  There you have it.  Not all roads are paper roads and some roads are not roads.  But remember – if a nice-looking ecologist turns up on your lifestyle block, don’t point him in the direction of an impenetrable paper road!

But what about the poem?

Yes, this is a gem which turned up while doing research:

Paper Road

Rainshower passes
over the paper
road, words string a line
descenders cut
pale blue lines.  You can dance
sing, conduct
a music of meaning, kind of a song
that has always existed
pen for a plectrum or baton.
A song, a piece of music
in the form of a poem, sing it!
A song, a piece of a poem

Graham Lindsay


After reading this article David Woodward sent the following information:

The New Zealand Walking Access Commission has a Walking Access Mapping System - Ara Hikoi at  The web site maps illustrate fairly clearly the location of paper roads and an explanatory article in the Commission's web site describes the adopted signage used to identify paper road access in some localities.

© Annette Taylor