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Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works

The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was created in 1891 to build and manage a sewerage system for Melbourne and take over the existing reticulated water supply. A royal commission appointed in 1889 to inquire into the unhealthy and insanitary condition of the rapidly growing metropolis concluded that a metropolitan-wide integrated underground sewerage system was necessary to combat the scourge of typhoid. Because of Melbourne's fragmented system of municipal government, a special body had to be created for this task. Based on a London model, the Board, which came to regard itself as the 'Parliament of the Suburbs', consisted of representatives nominated by every municipality. As representation was based on property valuations, the inner suburbs and especially the Melbourne City Council dominated proceedings.

Despite the onset of the 1890s depression the Board under its first chairman Edmund FitzGibbon pressed on with sewer building. There were objections from some municipalities anxious to avoid paying new rates, and major problems in raising loans needed to finance the work, but the system was completed and house connections began from 1897.

Successive Victorian Governments looked to the MMBW to use its power to levy rates and raise loans to carry out an increasing range of metropolitan functions beyond the scope of individual municipalities. During the 1920s it was given responsibility for the metropolitan sections of the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers and their tributaries. As a logical extension of its hydrological responsibilities it also became responsible for main drains, and it was also forced to operate the nightsoil depots in unsewered areas and briefly became a bridge builder over the Yarra.

From the turn of the century reformers hoped that the MMBW would be replaced by a Greater Melbourne Council embracing the whole metropolitan area. Conservatives, however, were happy to give the Board more powers as a way of avoiding such an outcome. The MMBW was often unpopular during the 1920s. In the depression which followed it did nothing to enhance its popularity as it adopted conservative fiscal policies, reducing spending while lifting rates in order to pay the interest owing on local and overseas loans.

Antipathy evaporated after World War II when the Board was looked upon favourably as the one organisation able to tackle the challenges of city growth. Having prepared a planning scheme for the metropolitan area in 1949, it was made the metropolitan planning authority. In 1956 it acquired powers to construct and maintain highways and bridges, protect and improve the foreshores and create and maintain parks within the metropolitan region. However, these responsibilities were not matched by an adequate expansion in the Board's tax base and it struggled to meet its responsibilities. The major challenge was to water and sewer the rapidly expanding postwar suburbs. The Board gave priority to water supply, quickly connecting new houses, but increased demand meant that water restrictions became a feature of summer months. The sewerage system expanded far more slowly, with septic tanks and pan service a feature of many new suburbs until the 1980s.

From 1966 until the early 1980s the Board was led by the dynamic Alan Croxford who presided over a massive burst of construction activity in all areas of the Board's responsibility. Plans for sewage disposal, dam and freeway building provoked opposition on environmental grounds, leading to vociferous protest campaigns. Seen as being unresponsive to the municipalities, the Board was subject to an external inquiry that led to the abolition of the old Board, which had grown to 54 members by 1979, and its replacement by four local government commissioners. The Board lost its planning functions as a result of a change of government in the early 1980s and shifting views about how public utilities should be run, and was abolished in 1991. Its hydraulic functions have since been carried out by Melbourne Water, while its other functions were handed over to other bodies.

Tony Dingle

Dingle, Tony, and Carolyn Rasmussen, Vital connections: Melbourne and its Board of Works, 1891-1991, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1991. Details