Developing urban facilities
By the early 20th century councils in New Zealand’s main cities provided electricity and gas line networks, a piped water supply, tramways, domains and public gardens, libraries and swimming pools. Some added a much wider range of civic facilities including housing, sports fields, museums and zoos. The larger city councils also owned and ran a surprising variety of business enterprises. Auckland City operated a fish market and fishing fleet, and Dunedin built a hydroelectric dam to generate power for local consumers.
For county councils, the main concerns remained roading, wharves and river control. These facilities were funded by charging rates on property and by government subsidies and loans for specific purposes such as roads and sewerage schemes. In 1926 the Local Authorities Loans Board was formed to more closely monitor such borrowing.
John Fow was first elected to Hamilton Borough Council in 1907 and served there, including two terms as mayor, until his death in 1943. A staunch Methodist, he disliked alcoholic drink, dancing, and men and women bathing together at the municipal swimming pool. There was much affection for Fow, and his funeral was the largest Hamilton had ever seen.
Main Highways Board
Rural local authorities with small populations tended to face the greatest financial difficulties. Their expenses on roads and other services were often comparable with larger and wealthier districts, yet their income from rates was far smaller. This problem became acute as the number of motor vehicles soared, and counties such as the tiny Matakaoa, on the East Coast, found they were unable to provide roading of a sufficient standard. In 1922 a Main Highways Board was set up to supervise, and if necessary take over, the roading work carried out by counties. In 1936 nearly 6,500 kilometres of main highways were declared ‘state highways’ and transferred from county control to the Main Highways Board (later renamed the National Roads Board).
Power, catchment and other boards
The Power Boards Act 1918 allowed for the formation of district electric power boards to develop electricity supplies in rural areas. After the passing of the Soil Conservation and River Control Act 1941, catchment boards were formed to manage regional water supplies.
Town hall is where the heart is
The town hall, council chamber or other premises used by the local government was one of the earliest important buildings in many New Zealand towns. The New Plymouth borough council, set up in 1876, described its first premises as ‘our Parliament, court, town board, meeting room, library, reading room, cardroom and resident’s magistrate’s office.’1
Local Government Commission
The economic depression of the 1930s forced many territorial and ad hoc authorities to amalgamate, regardless of local wishes. However, dissatisfaction with the overlapping responsibilities of local-government districts, and of local and central government, remained. A series of inquiries attempted to resolve these problems, but only one, in 1944–45, led to any definite action. It set up the Local Government Commission in 1946 as an independent review board with wide powers to recommend local-government restructuring and amalgamation. However, residents and ratepayers were usually able to overturn proposals to unite, merge or abolish local-authority districts, and little reform was achieved apart from boundary changes.
Auckland Regional Authority
By 1956 the Auckland region’s population was overwhelmingly urban and growing rapidly. Services such as drainage and waste collection had become overloaded and uncoordinated, and the urgent need for better urban and regional planning finally overrode the parochialism that had blocked local government reform. In 1962 Parliament proposed a regional authority to carry out works and services over Auckland’s 32 municipalities and counties, and take over the functions of most of its special-purpose authorities. In 1963 the Auckland Regional Authority (restructured and renamed the Auckland Regional Council in 1989) was set up to serve the needs of the country’s largest city. Other regional authorities came into existence in later years and by the late 20th century most functions of the earlier ad hoc local authorities were under either regional or central control.