The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times
Chapter IX. Mayor of Wellington
Chapter IX. Mayor of Wellington,
He becomes Mayor—The Drainage Scheme—City improvements— The Miramar proposal rejected—Municipal finance —Bell's great reform.
When Bell was unsuccessful in his first effort to enter Parliament in 1890 he turned his attention to municipal affairs. He was Mayor of Wellington from December, 1891, to December, 1893, and, after having served in the interval for three years as a member of Parliament, he again became Mayor from December, 1896, to December, 1897.
In New Zealand the Mayor of a city or a borough is not by law charged with any special administrative functions. He is in effect merely chairman of the Council. Hence he may, if he so desires, regard himself solely as the more or less ornamental head of the city, whose main duty is to receive distinguished visitors, preside over civic functions and meetings of his City Council. But if, on the other hand, he takes upon himself to launch a policy or programme for carrying out municipal reforms for the improvement of the city, there is no doubt that his prestige as Mayor and chairman of the Council affords him special opportunities for obtaining results, more especially if he possesses the confidence and goodwill of his fellow Councillors. The only page 75risk attached to such a course is that if his proposals are highly controversial, and cause conflict in the Council, he may be accused of partiality in the performance of his primary and statutory duty as chairman of the Council. For this reason some Mayors prefer to leave the initiation of civic reforms to the chairmen of the various Council Committees.
It is almost needless to say that the idea of being a mere passive figurehead made no appeal to Bell— indeed it is unlikely that he ever debated the question in his own mind. In this sphere, as at a later date in the wider sphere of national affairs, he proved himself to be a bold and constructive reformer, as well as an administrator. This will appear from a brief account of some of the main improvements which he initiated and carried to a successful issue in the civic government of Wellington.
At the time when he became Mayor, the sanitation of the city was in a shocking condition. There had been a serious outbreak of typhoid fever in the summer of 1890-91, followed by an even worse epidemic in the succeeding summer. Bell immediately secured the appointment of a Sanitation Committee, whose inquiries showed the necessity for sweeping reforms. It found "an alarming accumulation of filth and dirt in back yards from one end of the city to the other." A move was set on foot to devise the necessary remedies. Instead of the old method by which the individual citizen had to pay for having his rubbish removed, the city itself undertook to carry out proper sanitary service without charge. At the same time application was made to Parliament for power to raise a substantial loan for more effectively coping with the problem. The page 76result was that within a short time the scene was changed, and there was scarcely a dirty backyard to be found in the city. Not only so, but the Health returns showed a great reduction in the number of fever cases, and it was confidently predicted that, when the full drainage scheme was completed, the city would be the healthiest in the Dominion. At every step Bell was active and insistent, and when he finally secured parliamentary authority in 1892 for the raising of a sanitation loan of £165,000, he called a public meeting at which he moved the resolution authorizing the loan and the taking of a poll. In spite of vigorous opposition from some citizens who wanted to set up a Drainage Board independent of the City Council, Bell carried his proposal for a loan both at the public meeting and at the statutory poll.
A striking example of the confidence of his Council in Bell was given by the method in which the negotiations for the loan were conducted.
"We found considerable difficulty in conducting negotiations as a Committee of a public body; and eventually it was arranged that I should act alone in all communications with bankers and others on the subject, and should be authorized to treat any conversations or letters as private and confidential. I was constantly engaged in such negotiations from October, 1892, to February, 1893, when I was able to report to the Finance Committee that by far the best proposal was that of the Union Bank of Austtralia Ltd., to float our loan in London at 4½ per cent. and at a minimum of £99 … The loan was duly raised on the London market at the average price page 77of £99 10s. 2d., the net result to the Corporation, after paying all charges, amounting to £161,862 2s. 6d.*
Up to the time when the Drainage Scheme was launched the whole of the sewage of Wellington was discharged into the inner harbour. But under the new proposal an outfall tunnel was driven from Adelaide Road under the Hospital grounds, and sewers were carried over the Lyall Bay sand-dunes, and thence to the outlet on the coast of Cook Strait. This involved the City Council in a prolonged controversy with the Government, which had been advised that danger to the Cook Strait cable might ensue. In consequence of this, the Government introduced a Bill to prevent the discharge of city drainage into Cook Strait at any place to the eastward of Island Bay. This would have effectively prevented the Council from carrying out its Drainage Scheme, but Bell finally suggested that the city should agree to pay for any damage which might be done, and the Act, as passed, permitted the City Council, subject to that condition, to erect the outfall works where it pleased.†
If no other great work than this stood to Bell's credit it would by itself render his tenure of office as Mayor memorable. But he secured many other important improvements to the city. It was during his control in 1892 that the city cemeteries were closed and the present Karori Cemetery opened. In this connection Bell was one of the earliest advocates of cremation, and in a speech to the Council said:
"I trust that the Legislature will soon grant and the
* Mayor's Address, December 19, 1893.page 78Council avail itself of powers enabling the erection of proper appliances for inexpensive cremation of the dead. The true solution of the cemetery difficulty is, I am satisfied, to be so arrived at."
It was also during his first two years of office that many improvements were made to the city parks, reserves, and recreation grounds, and the Free Public Library established.* A study of the City Council records shows that Bell was successful in settling many serious disputes with the Government, the Harbour Board, and other local bodies which arose over matters now merely of local historical interest.
When Bell came back as Mayor in 1897 it was not long before he put before the Council further bold measures for the improvement of the city—including a comprehensive programme for erecting public baths, abattoirs, crematorium, and water-works. He expounded what should be the policy of the Council in street-widening, so that the benefits of the improvements should accrue to the city; and in this respect he anticipated what is now the general statutory legislation applicable to all municipalities.
But there was one great reform in municipal finance which was successfully initiated by Bell in connection with his own city, and which some years later he made applicable by legislation to all local bodies. In 1897 he drew attention to the pernicious system of borrowing on overdraft from the banks without a poll of the ratepayers and carrying this overdraft forward from year to year. It was thus possible for a Council to borrow so much as to leave its successors wholly without funds until the rates of the next year were actually paid in. Over a series of years these overdrafts had so piled up that it was impossible to pay them out of revenue. In order to put an end to this mischievous practice Bell proposed to get authority from Parliament to issue debentures for the full amount of the overdrafts then current, and for the future to provide that it should not be lawful for a Council to owe on overdraft at the end of any financial year more than the revenue outstanding and uncollected. In fact, what he aimed at was to compel the city to live within its revenue, and, if any capital works had to be carried out, this should be done page 80out of loan moneys authorized by a poll of the ratepayers. Bell urged that unless this reform was given effect to, the continually growing overdrafts would become a hopeless drag on local body finance. These provisions were finally made the general law of the country in the Local Bodies' Finance Act, 1921-22, and constitute one of the most beneficent reforms ever applied to local finance.*
An amusing incident arose out of the legislation of 1921. It fell to my lot as Minister of Internal Affairs to pilot the measure through the House of Representatives. Shortly after this I was invited to open a Municipal Conference. In doing so I paid a tribute to Bell's statesmanship in thus safeguarding local finance, and said that some day the municipalities would realize what a great mind Sir Francis Bell had placed at their service. A few days later Bell said whimsically:
"I see you have been referring to my great mind. Do you know the biography of Judge B. in which an item in the index read, 'Judge B., his great mind' —and when the reader looked up the reference he found, 'Judge B. said he had a great mind to commit the witness for contempt'."