Counties Act 1876
The increasingly clumsy system of provincial governments hindered New Zealand’s social and economic development and was abolished in 1876. The Counties Act 1876 divided rural areas into counties, based on the earlier district roads boards. Premier Julius Vogel announced that the act’s ‘great object’ would be ‘to secure the merging of the road boards into the Counties’.1 However, this amalgamation was voluntary and the number of single-purpose boards continued to increase: the 63 initial counties proved too small to effectively manage the host of facilities and services, such as electricity and water supply, and pest and weed control, that their ratepayers required. Instead, they generally limited themselves to providing and maintaining rural roads, as had the road boards before them.
The glory of Onehunga
Elizabeth Yates became the first woman mayor in the British Empire when she was elected mayor of the Auckland borough of Onehunga in 1893. Four male councillors and the town clerk immediately resigned in protest. Her election made news worldwide and Onehunga became an international tourist attraction. Yates had a stormy term in office and was defeated after a year. One local paper wrote, ‘The glory hath departed Onehunga.’2 No other woman was elected mayor in New Zealand until 1957, when Annie Huggan became mayor of Petone, near Wellington.
Municipal Corporations Act 1876
The Municipal Corporations Act 1876 provided a single nationwide system of government for town and city councils. The mayor was to be elected directly by the ratepayers instead of by the council, general elections were to be held every three years, and each ratepayer could have up to five votes, according to the value of their property. This law made no distinction between male and female property owners, thus giving women the vote in local body elections 18 years before they achieved full suffrage in parliamentary elections. In 1898 plural voting was abolished for boroughs and from 1910 all adults, not just property owners, could vote in them. (In counties, plural voting lasted until 1971.)
Special-purpose local authorities
As the population expanded in the late 19th century, most towns and cities became surrounded by small suburban boroughs. Health, education, water supply and other services that had once been under the control of provincial governments could not be efficiently administered by these small local units, so a range of special-purpose authorities were set up to run them. These were not territorial local authorities, based on a specific geographical area, but ad hoc authorities, based on their function. In 1877 the control of education was vested in 12 education boards. In 1885 a state hospital system was placed under the control of 28 hospital boards. Other ad hoc authorities dealt with land drainage, river control, water supply and harbours.
By 1912 New Zealand, with a total population of just 1 million, was said to boast 115 counties, 113 boroughs, 56 town boards, 37 hospital boards, 38 river boards, 32 harbour boards, 20 fire boards, three rabbit boards, two tramway boards and one rabbit-proof fencing board. In total, the country had almost 4,000 territorial and ad hoc local authority bodies.
Attempts at reform
The proliferation of local authorities was due to two main factors – strongly localised interests and a short-sighted central government funding policy that encouraged large authorities to subdivide in order to receive more loans, grants and subsidies. From the 1890s central government made intermittent attempts to reform the local-government system, but could not gain enough political support to succeed. For example, the Local Government Bill 1912 aimed to do away with the roads boards and limit the number of towns, cities and counties. Local-body politicians feared that it would erode their power and centralise representation in Wellington, and the bill was not passed – but in practice the number of road boards did fall.