Forming and constructing streets in early towns was largely left to the residents. With no local government to do the work, people had to either carry out the work themselves or hire labour through subscriptions raised from householders, sometimes helped by government grants. Streets were often little more than dirt tracks, which became dust bowls in summer and quagmires in winter. Such was the condition of Dunedin’s streets that it was nicknamed ‘Mud-edin’. Auckland’s Queen Street was bisected by the Ligar Canal (Te Wai Horotou), effectively an open sewer, and a hazard for late-night revellers, until it was covered over in the 1860s.
Provincial and local government
The introduction of provincial government in 1853 provided for town and roads boards throughout New Zealand, each able to levy rates to finance the construction and maintenance of streets. Grants in aid emerged as the standard model, where residents raised half the funds and the provincial government met the rest of the cost. The system required volunteers going door-to-door to solicit funds, and then a call for tenders. Construction costs could be kept low through the use of prison labour, but even so, the system favoured wealthier districts, and poorer areas often missed out altogether.
Footpaths by halves
In 1893 the Australian writer Henry Lawson visited Wellington: ‘Another thing that strikes a new chum is the way the footpaths are half-paved. There are flags from the kerb to a line running along the centre of the path, and the rest is gravel. The stranger is told that the Council agreed to pave one half, if the ratepayers did the other. The city fathers fulfilled their part of the contract, but the respected citizens didn’t come up to time: they declined to shell out. They walked on the paved half and chuckled.’1
By 1875 there were 314 boards administering streets in their local districts, with the provincial councils responsible for main roads between settlements. Unfortunately, the boards were hampered by a shortage of funds, and often achieved little. Borough and city councils were formed from the 1860s onwards, and they took over the functions of the boards in their areas.
During the 20th century street building and maintenance was funded through council rates and central government subsidies. The inequity of the grants-in-aid system of funding was realised and it was scrapped, leading to a significant improvement in the condition of streets in poorer districts.
In 2008 central government funding was allocated through the New Zealand Transport Agency. Local authorities were still responsible for the planning and maintenance of streets. This was done through district plans prepared under the Resource Management Act 1991. Developers of new subdivisions built new streets, and paid a development contribution to the local authority to maintain them as part of their resource consent. Sometimes thoroughfares in new developments remained in private hands and were maintained by the owners.