Story: Cox, John Watson

Page 1 - Biography

Cox, John Watson

1902–1984

Lawyer, town planning administrator

This biography was written by Caroline L. Miller and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

John Watson Cox was born at Taupiri, Waikato, on 16 September 1902, the son of James Thomas Gostick Cox, a schoolteacher (later school inspector), and his wife, Mary Alice Armstrong. After attending Auckland Grammar School, Cox studied law at Auckland University College, graduating LLB in 1929. He practised as a barrister and solicitor in Auckland until 1939. On 19 November 1929 at Remuera he married Helen May Maddox. There were to be no children of the marriage.

Persistent migraines prevented Cox from serving overseas during the Second World War, and between 1942 and 1944 he was a clerk and then a sergeant in the New Zealand government Security Intelligence Bureau. When discharged from the army he became interested in the reconstruction of post-war society and completed examinations to become a legal associate of the Town Planning Institute, London. He then began working in Wellington with the short-lived Organisation for National Development.

As part of his duties in November 1944 Cox became secretary and legal adviser to the Town-planning Board. This board had been set up under the Town-planning Act 1926 to approve the planning schemes written by local authorities, and it was Cox’s role to ensure that it fulfilled that function legally and efficiently. In 1945 the administration of planning passed from the Department of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of Works, which created a Planning Division (later known as the Town and Country Planning Division) with Cox at its head. Cox remained in this position for 22 years. During his tenure there were successes in gaining some recognition and resources for town planning, such as the employment of a reasonable number of planners in the Ministry of Works and the acceptance of the activity as an ongoing government concern. But frustrations grew out of the internal battles within the ministry when the engineering staff failed to appreciate either the concerns of the planners or their professional status.

As first president of the Architectural Centre, Wellington (1947–49), Cox came into contact with a number of architects, such as Gordon Wilson and George Porter, who were beginning to explore design solutions to town planning problems. Cox facilitated an exhibition by students of the Architectural Centre in 1948, which addressed the issue of unregulated urban growth. This problem was to dominate Cox’s concerns throughout his working life and reflected his fear that New Zealand’s agricultural land would be swallowed by growing towns and cities. It appeared to Cox that this type of development was often promoted by the housing division of the Ministry of Works. His solution was to advocate higher-density living in combination with the protection of rural land; this latter concept was reflected in the Town and Country Planning Act 1953, to which Cox contributed modestly. He was centrally involved in writing the 1959 regulations which accompanied the act, and these did much to shape the practice of planning in New Zealand for many years. He also instituted the production of a comprehensive series of regional resource surveys of the whole country.

Always a strong advocate of the professional planner and remembered by many as a helpful and supportive colleague, Cox participated in the various professional planning organisations that evolved in the post-war years. He was a councillor of the New Zealand Branch of the Town Planning Institute, London, and between 1958 and 1960 was president of its successor, the New Zealand Institute of Professional Town and Country Planners (which in 1959 became the Town and Country Planning Institute (NZ)). In 1957 he became a fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

In 1963, as part of the Special Commonwealth Aid to Africa Plan, Cox spent a year in Ghana assisting a group of overseas specialists to develop planning legislation. This was followed by an overseas study tour and attendance at the World Planning Congress. In 1967 he retired from the Ministry of Works and continued to do some small-scale consulting work from his retirement home in Auckland. In 1980, in recognition of his work in town planning, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the New Zealand Planning Institute. John and Helen Cox had divorced on 2 November 1951 and on 26 March 1952 at Wellington he had married Argentinian-born Sito Sophie Abigael Vogt. No children were born to the marriage. John died on 20 October 1984 at Auckland. Sito predeceased him in 1976.

John Cox was a complex and at times contradictory man. A passionate and often nationalistic New Zealander, he strove to advance planning as a means of securing a better future for his country. However, this passion sometimes made him less than diplomatic and his achievements were consequently more limited than they might have been. Nevertheless, he advanced and influenced town planning and his battles to further the professional status of planners did much to help the profession to establish itself in New Zealand as a viable and important aspect of local and central government endeavour.