Local councils, mayors divided over Three Waters reform

Source: 1News

Division among local mayors and councils is growing following the Government's proposal of reforms for how the country's drinking, storm and wastewater is run. 

On Wednesday, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced the "case for change is too compelling to ignore", meaning the Government will push ahead with their Three Waters reform plan despite heavy opposition from a majority of the nation's 67 councils.

One of those councils is Dunedin City Council with councillor Jim O'Malley telling Breakfast on Thursday morning the Government's response the local water issues is over-the-top. 

"After getting the feedback from all the councils in October and going forward with no change at all, I would argue that the Government hasn't listened to anybody," O'Malley said.

"Sixty of 67 councils said they didn't agree with this and yet the Government is going forward with it. We have ways that we know we can address this and we think the four entities [in the Three Waters reform] is the wrong way to do it."

Lower Hutt Mayor Campbell Barry has had a partial change of tune though, saying it's unsurprising the Government has gone down a mandatory route to instill the reform.

"Over the last couple of months, unfortunately, there has been a lot of misinformation in the public sphere as we go through how we deal with the three waters structure," Barry said.

"But it's important that we have a grown-up discussion around dealing with this issue because it is one that has been decades in the making and won't go away."

Barry denied his shift of ideals was a political move, given he is a Labour councillor, insisting his focus was on what was best for his region and people.

"The status quo means thousands of people across New Zealand currently get sick from drinking water out of the tap," he said.

"We have a situation in Wellington where infrastructure is crumbling; if we were to address that on our council books it would be completely unsustainable for our ratepayers and completely unaffordable.

"I can understand why some councils have concerns with what is being proposed but it's pretty clear that the investment that is needed will be unaffordable under the current system."

By July 2024, the Government expects four new organisations will take over running the country's water services, with up to $2 billion funding for councils. New Zealand's water infrastructure was estimated to cost up to $180 billion to repair.

O'Malley argued that large some of money can go directly to the councils to address the issue though and the Government was clutching at straws to get their reform over the line.

Woman filling a glass of water. She is using the faucet in the kitchen sink. There is a plant out of focus in the foreground. Close up with copy space.

"The narrative that the Government is going with, I've used the term 'unicorn numbers' - they're fanciful and the councils have told them that," O'Malley said.

"This idea that thousands of people are getting sick off drinking water every day, these are unicorn numbers. The Prime Minister has said that 34,000 people get sick from drinking water every day - that's 0.5 per cent of the population.

"That means one-in-200 people every year - do you know anyone who has gotten sick from drinking water? Because over the course of a decade, that's one-in-20. If those numbers were real, you and I would know someone who has gotten sick."

Barry said the emphasis should be on the fact Kiwis' health will be improved by the reform.

"We do not live our lives within our council boundaries," Barry said.

"The key is that we have clean drinking water no matter where you are in New Zealand and we start to address the pollution getting into our waterways which is making our beaches not swimmable and restricting our abilities to grow our cities to deal with the housing crisis.

"That has to change and we can't think that the status quo will deal with that."

The Government said on Wednesday local governments, iwi and water representatives will get a say in changes to the three waters reform but O'Malley said councils want a "pseudo water entity" instead.

"Half the stuff that these [three waters] entities are supposed to bring, we can do in other formats. We don't need to have the assets changed.

"This is just putting decoration on a cake you wouldn't want to eat."