Widespread dismay from mayors across NZ to Govt's Three Waters reform

Source: 1News

Auckland’s Phil Goff has led the chorus of consternation to Wednesday's announcement the Government is mandating its Three Waters plan.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta confirmed that drinking, waste and storm water reforms will proceed. The mandate will split New Zealand's water supply into four geographically divided entities that will take control from councils.

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.

"It is a bottom line for the government that the entities remain in public ownership," Mahuta said.

But feedback has been negative from most corners of the country.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said the water reforms would provide few benefits to Aucklanders.

"While the Government’s Three Waters reforms are designed to address problems in water services elsewhere in New Zealand, they would provide little benefit to Aucklanders and would come at the cost of Auckland losing control over water services that represent 28 per cent of the city’s assets," Goff said in a statement. 

“We support the intent of the reforms but what they mean in practice is that Aucklanders would have imposed upon them a water services entity which has no democratic accountability to them through elected representatives,” he said.

“Aucklanders are being asked to give away control over assets they have built up over generations. Auckland would contribute 94 per cent of the assets acquired by the new water entity and get in return a minority voice on an oversight committee which in any case would have no effective power of governance and no ability to ensure responsiveness."

Goff says Mahuta's general water criticisms do not apply to Auckland.

“The Minister lists the poor quality of water services, unsafe fresh water, and inadequate investment in infrastructure as the reasons for the needing reform. While that may be true in some areas, it is not true in Auckland. Auckland provides the highest standard of drinking water in the country and its wastewater treatment is also the highest standard in the country.

“Far from underinvesting in infrastructure, in this year’s 10-year Budget, Auckland Council has invested $11 billion in water services for the coming decade. Projects like the $1.2 billion Central Interceptor address problems like wastewater overflows and will dramatically improve water quality of our beaches and harbours.

“For all the above reasons, the overwhelming majority of councillors voted to reject the governance and accountability structures proposed in the three waters reform, and all 21 of Auckland’s local boards are opposed to the governance arrangements set out in the government’s proposal.”

“We will be proposing that the Water Services Entities, while operationally independent and able to set water prices independently, will retain their accountability and responsiveness to the people they serve through councils," Goff said. 

Auckland Council "will participate actively and constructively in the new working group the Government is proposing to improve the reforms", Goff said.

Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate says Hamilton’s feedback to Government earlier this month was that it did not support the proposals as they stand.

“This is the Government’s reform, not ours, but we need big changes before this plan is acceptable to us. Any reform needs to be done in a way that works for our city and our ratepayers and I’ll be fighting to make that happen.”

“Our Council has raised strong concerns about consultation, ownership of assets and the retention of a local voice. Council has demanded ironclad protections against privatisation. These issues need to be addressed,” Southgate said.

Whanganui Mayor Hamish McDouall joined the chorus of opposition.

"I’m disappointed that it’s come to this and while I understand the national case for change, I worry that individual concerns of individual councils, like our own will be lost in the mandation rather than working it through," he told 1News. 

"My core belief is that local decisions should be locally made. That’s the core basis of local Government."

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster told Te Karere although it was signalled, the mandating was “troubling” because of a lack of public consultation which was originally expected.

He said the need for change was recognised, “but there is some significant detail that needs to be worked through, particularly in the governance area and some engagement around that would be helpful to try and deal with those issues".

“Nobody ever likes something that’s forced,” he said.

“They much prefer to come to it willingly, knowing they have got an outcome which is an outcome they are happy with.

“The governance model that has been proposed is very convoluted. It means you’ve got a shareholding but it doesn’t feel as though it’s meaningful in any way."

Southern mayors respond

Marlborough District Council Mayor John Leggett said his reaction was "one of great disappointment at the Government’s decision to make the Three Waters reform mandatory".

“The Minister has stated the status quo is not sustainable and the case for reform is compelling. If this is the position why has there been no meaningful public engagement in the roll out of the reform proposals?”

“We provided the Government with constructive feedback on the reform proposal during the eight-week period to 30 September 2021, as did other councils around the country. In just three weeks the Government has analysed the feedback from 67 councils, leading many to the conclusion that the decision to mandate it had been predetermined."

“The mandatory ‘all in’ approach to this reform will be a bitter pill to swallow for many in our community, judging by the feedback I have received over the past two months," Leggett said. 

Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan said it "is a disappointment but no surprise to me that the Government has announced that it has decided to force through the Three Waters reforms".

"All the major political parties agree that reforms in the Three Waters space are needed and that the status quo no longer exists. Regrettably, a complete failure by the Government to explain to the public why it believes reform is needed, far less why it believed its model is the best one, led to a knowledge gap that was filled by misinformation.

"That combination of an information vacuum and rampant misinformation has led to an entirely predictable and understandable public backlash. That, in turn, in my view has been a significant factor that has led the Government to a choice between calling the whole thing off or forcing it through; and as I say, I am not surprised it has taken the latter option," Cadogan said. 

Green Party backs councils

The Green Party stood behind councils, calling for the Government to stop and listen to the rising concerns.

"The Green Party says the Government should hit the pause button on its Three Waters reform so it can fully address the concerns that have been raised by communities and councils all over the country," said Eugenie Sage, Green Party Three Waters spokesperson.

“There is very little in today’s Three Waters announcement that will reassure councils that they will have the chance to shape the new system in a way that works for their communities."

“Access to clean water is a basic human right and a public good. People want to have their say on how drinking water, wastewater and stormwater services are provided for present and future generations.

“From the beginning of this process local communities have not been given enough of a chance to have their concerns listened to and addressed. Now they will be sceptical about whether the Labour Government’s plan to press ahead with legislation in early December will allow enough time for substantive changes to be made to what Government has proposed.

“There is wide agreement that the status quo is not an option and change is needed. For decades central and local government have systematically under invested in our three waters infrastructure, which has affected both the standard of services and environmental quality.

"It (the Government) needs to allow time to work through concerns and look at alternatives ways of achieving a positive outcome for New Zealanders.

“This includes looking at proposals for alternative governance, representation and accountability models.

“Pushing ahead without fully addressing these and other concerns councils have raised risks undermining community support for any form of change. This could set back efforts to improve the delivery of three waters by years," Sage said. 

Ngāi Tahu back decision

Ngāi Tahu released a statement on Wednesday applauding the decision.

"The Government’s reform of Three Waters will help ensure water services for communities that are safe, high quality, and equitable, while improving outcomes for the environment," said Dr Te Maire Tau, co-chair of Te Kura Taka Pini (the Ngāi Tahu freshwater group).

"The reforms will create a new regional entity to deliver three waters services in an area encompassing much of the South Island, corresponding with natural water catchment areas and the Ngāi Tahu takiwā/boundary.

"It will be owned by the councils which currently own and manage three waters services, and steered by council and Ngāi Tahu representatives at a high level," he said.

Tau acknowledged the reforms would mean change for some councils, and were not universally supported.

“The government has undertaken significant consultation and Ngāi Tahu have been constructively working with councils on the proposals to date,” Tau said.

“This is our opportunity to get it right for our children and grandchildren, and we must put aside politics, and all unite in that effort.”