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Government in New Zealand

8 — Local Government

page 122

Local Government

The Great political reform movement which, during the nineteenth century, transformed the British Parliament from a stronghold of privilege to an instrument of democratic government, effected a similar transformation in the ancient institutions of local government. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, regarded by contemporary radicals as the logical complement of the Reform Act, transferred the government of towns from corrupt oligarchies to the elected representatives of the people and at the same time linked it organically with the central government. In 1888 the Counties Act took away the administrative functions of the county magistrates and handed them over to elected county councils. Then followed a series of consolidating reforms by which the various ad hoc authorities, of which the most important were the poor law guardians and the school boards, were abolished and their functions transferred to the municipalities and counties. These changes were accompanied by a great resurgence of interest in local page 123institutions, the vitality of which aroused the admiring interest of students of government throughout the world.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find in the Englishmen who emigrated to the colonies in the nineteenth century a profound belief in the genius of their race for local self-government and an equally profound mistrust of centralisation. But although in New Zealand and Australia popular feeling against centralisation is still strong, and although local governing authorities have been created in profusion, local government has not flourished except in the larger towns. In the rural areas, community spirit has never become strong enough to give local institutions sufficient vitality to resist the centripetal tendency inherent in the modern state.

The history of local government in New Zealand falls naturally into two periods, with the abolition of the provincial system of government in 1876 as the dividing line. Between 1853 and 1876 each province set up its own system of local government, and although at first there was wide variation in these systems, in the end they conformed roughly to one pattern. In the Canterbury province, for instance, local government began with an interesting attempt to transplant the direct democracy of the English parish to colonial soil. In 1859 the provincial council passed an ordinance empowering the inhabitants of any district to levy a rate for roading purposes and to page 124appoint an unpaid 'waywarden' whose duties were to collect the rate, keep accounts, and arrange for the construction of roads under the general supervision of the provincial engineer. The measure is of interest only as an indication of the tendency of the first settlers to look to their home country for political inspiration; this, it may be recalled, was the period when Toulmin Smith and Rudolph von Gneist were proclaiming the virtues of the ancient English system of 'self-government' and attacking the new tendency to centralise political power and place it in the hands of paid officials. In Canterbury, the task of creating a road system where none had previously existed was too great for unpaid and unqualified elective officials. Moreover, a farming community which was already objecting to the double burden of provincial and national taxation showed little disposition to rate itself voluntarily. For the time being, road work continued to be undertaken mainly by the provincial council. In 1864, however, the provincial engineer, in the course of a report to the Superintendent, stated: 'It is proper to observe that, with the growing prosperity of the province, the work of the (Engineer's) Department has far outgrown the machinery employed for its execution, and that the time has arrived when it is necessary … to introduce a system of local management which shall relieve the Government of a great deal of routine work which can better be done by provincial boards than page break
The Provincial Council Chamber, Canterbury

The Provincial Council Chamber, Canterbury

page 125by an executive sitting in Christchurch.' Next year the provincial council passed an ordinance dividing the province into twenty-six road districts, the property-owners in which were compelled to elect road boards. Similar measures had already been passed by most of the other provincial councils; and an official enquiry towards the end of the provincial period showed that there were in New Zealand 314 road boards as well as sixteen incorporated towns. The efforts of the provincial councils to establish urban local government were hindered not merely by the reluctance of the townspeople to add local taxation to the existing burden of provincial and national taxation but also by an uncertainty as to the competence of the councils to grant charters of incorporation.

In the late sixties projects for increased expenditure on public works caused the central government to interest itself in the problem of local administration. The manner in which the provinces were spending the money allotted to them for public works had long been a cause of complaint, and it was felt that any increase in the expenditure under this head must be preceded by a reform of the country's administrative machinery. The Government's plan was to take local government to some extent out of the hands of the provincial councils and to compel them to pay over a fixed proportion of their revenue to local bodies. The proposal to establish a national system of local government was further justified by the discovery that many page 126of the ordinance by which the provincial councils had constituted road boards and municipal corporations were ultra vires.'

By this time, however, the battle between the provincialists and the centralists had begun; and the provincialists regarded the proposal to centralise control of local government as merely part of the campaign to whittle away the powers of the provincial councils. In 1867 the Government with difficulty-persuaded Parliament to pass a Municipal Corporations Act based on the English act of 1835; but although the original purpose of the measure was to establish a uniform national municipal code, its value was destroyed by a clause making its adoption permissive and not mandatory. A Counties Bill providing for the replacement of road boards by counties with a minimum area of sixty square miles met with a very different fate. The provincialists fell upon it with a fury which hinted at the weakness of their case and it was withdrawn. It was then realised that local government reform would have to be shelved until the main battle between the provincialists and the centralists had been fought out to a finish.

With the abolition of the provinces, the establishment of a uniform national system of local government became not merely possible but, if a complete and unwholesome centralisation of the powers of government were to be avoided, immediately necessary. In 1876 the Premier, Sir Julius Vogel, brought page 127down a Counties Bill providing for the division of the country into thirty-nine counties and the election of county councils by ratepayers on a multiple property franchise. Those who framed the measure regarded the new counties as a substitute for the provincial councils rather than for the road boards. Even those who had fought most strenuously for the termination of the unhappy experiment in federalism did not desire that the central government should be the sole legatee of the powers of the provincial councils. Their view was that most of the provincial powers should devolve upon a reformed and revitalised system of local government supervised from the centre. Their general design was for an administrative structure in three tiers: the road boards, the county councils, and the central government. It was not contemplated, however, that the system would remain static. The county councils, it was anticipated, would ultimately absorb the road boards (the bill provided for this) and would in addition gradually acquire the powers exercised by certain ad hoc authorities.

The idea behind the act was good; the act itself, by the time it had emerged from its parliamentary mauling, was a series of unhappy compromises. Vogel, who had charge of the bill in the House of Representatives, announced that its 'great object' would be 'to secure the merging of the road boards into the Counties'; but he added 'it would be undesirable that rates should be imposed within the County, page 128if within the same county there are rates imposed by the road districts' and accordingly inserted a clause making the adoption of the measure in any locality dependent on the will of the ratepayers. A Canterbury member, William Rolleston, gave a severe but just estimate of the defects of the measure. 'There is no definition of finances,' he complained, 'there is no definition of functions, and there is that mixing up of the General Government, the road boards, and the counties which must land the country in inextricable confusion.' In the words of another critic, the Government 'threw the constitution to the people and told them to adopt it or not as they liked.'

The Government's vagueness of purpose was particularly evident and particularly unfortunate in its consequences when the House came to deal with the crucial question of administrative areas. The framers of the bill were conscious that the road districts were too small to serve as basic units of rural local government; and they sought, without much in the way of community of interest or geographic boundaries to guide them, an area intermediate between the road districts and the provinces. The bill as presented to the House of Representatives provided for thirty-nine county areas; and, although dispassionate critics of the bill contended that this number was too large, local influence in the House was so strong that, by the time the bill became law, the number had been increased to sixty-three.

page 129

In view of the subsequent history of the county system it must be regretted that the reaction against provincialism and an uncritical willingness to copy rural local government in other countries caused the legislators of 1876 to ignore the suitability of the provinces, in point of geographic distinctness and community of interest, as administrative areas. Although more than sixty years have passed since the abolition of the provincial governments, provincial feeling has not been weakened and has in many respects been intensified. Moreover, the great majority of state departments which have decentralised their activities have done so on the basis of the provincial areas. Had the provincialists been less stubbornly and unreasonably opposed to any curtailment of the powers of the provincial governments, had they not defended so vigorously features of the provincial system which were indefensible, New Zealand might by degrees have evolved a system of provincial government which avoided on the one hand the conflicts of jurisdiction inherent in federalism and on the other hand the parochialism of local government.

The history of rural local government in the period since 1876 is mainly a history of further fragmentation. The original Counties Act provided for thirty-nine counties; the number is now 129. The basic reason for this multiplication of areas is the intense local patriotism of the New Zealand rural community. The English village is content to be the English village; the page 130New Zealand village strives restlessly for aggrandisement and rejects the name 'village' as being an insulting diminutive. A score of houses, a general store, and a public house constitute a 'township'. A township of more than 1,000 inhabitants will probably have its Progress League and its weekly newspaper; if it can also make itself the county headquarters it will have increased its importance, and its public houses and shops will have bettered their trade. The county clerk and the county engineer will be useful additions to the community; the meetings of the county council will bring a dozen or more farmers into the township once a month or once a fortnight; and ratepayers who come to transact business at the county offices will also make the township their shopping centre. Though primarily due to local patriotism, the multiplication of administrative areas was encouraged by the curiously shortsighted policy of the central government in regard to loans and subsidies. The Loans to Local Bodies Act of 1886 established a uniform annual maximum for county borrowing, with the result that the larger counties were penalised. The system whereby county rates were subsidised by the central government had the same effect, since the rate of subsidy decreased as the amount subsidised increased. There were numerous cases of large counties subdividing merely in order that the area concerned might increase its revenue from loans and subsidies.

Only one consolidating tendency is perceptible in page 131rural local government after 1876: the road districts, which the original Counties Act left intact, have been gradually eliminated, no more than ten now remaining. Unfortunately, however, the gain has been in part illusory, since the elimination of road districts has been paralleled by the growth of the riding system. The Counties Act of 1876 provided for ridings as units of representation; a series of later enactments made them units of administration. The Counties Act of 1920 provides that general rates shall be levied separately in each riding on the basis of estimated expenditure in that riding and that separate riding accounts must be kept. In 1931, however, legislation was passed empowering county councils to abolish the riding system except for representation; and in the eight years since then nearly half the county councils have availed themselves of this power.

An important and unfortunate consequence of the multiplication of county areas has been the increase in the number of ad hoc local authorities. From the first, the counties were too small to be suitable as administrative areas for the new services that came into existence, and their original function of providing and maintaining roads has remained almost their only function. In the year after the passing of the first Counties Act, the control of education was vested in twelve local education boards whose administrative areas were the old provinces or subdivisions of them. In 1885 a state hospital system was created and placed page 132under the control of twenty-eight local hospital boards whose administrative areas were in the main groupings of counties. The Power Boards Act of 1918 created another set of local authorities to undertake reticulation works and the retail sale of electric power. At the same time, scores of local authorities have been constituted by special enactments to deal with such matters as land drainage, river control, water supply, and harbours. With the ad hoc authorities, as with the counties, the tendency has been towards smaller areas. There are now forty-two hospital districts in place of the original twenty-eight.

The multiplication of local administrative areas has had the further effect of bringing the local authorities more and more under central control. By an unhappy irony, the subdivision of the counties proceeded most rapidly at a time when the development of motor transport was making imperative a larger unit of road administration. The inability of the counties to provide roads of the standard necessary to withstand the strain of motor traffic led in 1922 to the establishment of a Main Highways Board to supervise the road work of counties and, where necessary, to relieve them of this work. In 1936, nearly 4,000 miles of main highways, comprising the principal arterial roads, were declared 'state highways' and transferred from county control to control by the Main Highways Board. The ad hoc authorities, like the counties, have not been able to resist the growth of centralisation. The educa-page 133tion boards established in 1877 are now little more than agents of the Education Department.

A third effect of the multiplication of local areas has been to depress the standard of the local government civil service. Of the twenty-six counties in the Canterbury province, five employ a single executive officer with no clerical assistance; eleven employ a single executive officer with one clerical assistant; only four have five or more executive and clerical employees; and only two have ten or more. Only three of these counties have superannuation schemes. The highest paid county officer in Canterbury gets slightly more than £700 a year and the average for county clerks is not much above £400.

The re-constitution of local government which followed the abolition of the provincial system extended to the towns as well as to the country. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1876 was a consolidation of provincial and central legislation dealing with town government. In its general outlines it followed the English model, the principal differences being that the mayor was elected directly by the ratepayers instead of by the municipal council, that general elections were held every three years instead of partial elections every year, that ratepayers had one to five votes according to the value of their property, and that there were no aldermen. This act gave the women of New Zealand their first franchise, though they were page 134granted the concession not as women but as property-owners. The multiple property franchise, which was copied from the system of electing boards of guardians introduced by the English Poor Law Act of 1834 and not abolished until 1898, is an interesting comment on the general assumption that New Zealand has always been to the left of England in her political thinking. The tendency to fragmentation of areas which has weakened rural local government has also weakened urban local government, though to a less extent. The two decades or so after 1876 saw the growth around most of the larger boroughs of a ring of small suburban boroughs. As a result, control of tramways, drainage, water supply, and other services which could not be efficiently administered on the basis of existing borough areas passed to ad hoc authorities. Many of these still remain, even though in most large towns the tendency to fragmentation of borough areas has been reversed and many of the suburban boroughs elimin-ated. There has also been a tendency to consolidation within the boroughs themselves. In 1876, a majority of boroughs were divided into wards, which, like the county ridings, tended to become separate administrative units. No large borough now retains the ward system.

The growth of central control over local authorities has not been accompanied by any such increase as has taken place in England in the contribution of the central government to the finance of local govern-page 135ment. In 1936-37, local authorities (excluding hospital boards and education boards) obtained 37.2 per cent of their revenue proper from rates, 59.6 per cent from public utilities, licences, and rents, and 2.9 per cent from the central government. Education boards receive all their revenue from the central government. Hospital boards in 1936-37 obtained 40 per cent of their revenue from the central government, 34.9 per cent from rates collected on their behalf by counties and boroughs, and the rest mainly from patients' fees. The total expenditure of local authorities (excluding hospital boards and education boards) was £20,000,000 in 1936-37, which was about one-fifth of the gross expenditure of the central government.

The need for an overhaul of the New Zealand system of local government designed to increase the size of administrative areas, to eliminate ad hoc authorities, to raise the standard of the local government civil service, and to reduce the number of rates levied in each area has been accepted by almost every government for the last thirty years. But the efforts made from time to time to persuade Parliament and the local authorities themselves to institute reforms have made little headway against local feeling. Nor has Parliament been willing to follow the example of the British Parliament by vesting a large part of its general powers over local government in a state department. General problems of local government are dealt with by the Department of Internal Affairs, page 136which, however, has not acquired that power to supervise the growth of the local government system as a whole which is exercised by the Ministry of Health in England. The New Zealand system of local government is like an unpruned apple tree—a profuse and tangled growth bearing very little fruit.