Functions and Powers
Although local government has been broadly defined as that element of the governmental structure which deals with affairs of peculiarly local significance, there is no immutably fixed line of demarcation between its responsibilities and those of the Central Government. The allocation of functions between local and Central Government changes constantly as circumstances warrant. There is a wide range of powers and functions for which local authorities as a whole or as individual units may have varying degrees of responsibility. Traffic control, for example, may be undertaken by a local authority itself or by the State by arrangement with a local authority. Approval of land subdivision within municipalities has for many years been the responsibility of borough councils, but county councils were not given similar powers until 1962. On the other hand functions such as motor registration and hospital finance were at one time the responsibility of local authorities but are now that of the State.
A contributory cause of this state of flux is the fact that the territorial local authority structure is based on a system originally designed to meet the needs of the 1870s — a period when New Zealand consisted of many small and comparatively isolated settlements and resembled the present integrated community very little. Further, not only has the population more than quadrupled in this period but its distribution also has changed. In spite of minor adjustments made from time to time it is generally accepted that the territorial local government structure has not kept pace with these changes. Consequently, some local authorities have not the area or resources to carry out adequately functions involving works or other projects which require integration in national or regional schemes or the maintenance of a uniform approach and standard, at least without substantial assistance. This fact has direct relevance both to the extent to which powers can be delegated to local authorities and to the amount of financial assistance required to be provided by Central Government. Financial assistance to territorial local authorities by Central Government naturally involves some degree of supervision over the manner in which the finance provided is expended, and to that extent involves also Central Government control of local government actions.
The history of roading as a function of territorial local authorities is a relevant illustration. The responsibility for construction and maintenance of roads has traditionally been their responsibility. Indeed, roading is still a primary function of county councils and one of the more important functions of municipal councils. Since 1876 the power of initiative and the responsibility for roading finance have progressively and to a marked degree passed to Central Government, operating today through the National Roads Board. This Board, with its District Roads Councils, is representative of Government, local authorities, and road users. It has the sole ultimate responsibility for the construction, maintenance, and control of arterial routes, although it may delegate the actual work to local authorities and meet its cost. The Board also plays an influential part in the ordinary roading activities of local authorities through the payment of roading subsidies, which depend upon its prior approval of roading programmes.