3 South Wairarapa councillors take stand against Three Waters reforms

Source: Local Democracy Reporting

Three South Wairarapa councillors have taken a stand against Three Waters reforms, despite their council not taking an official position yet.

File image of kettle being filled with water.

By Local Democracy Reporting's Emily Ireland

In a joint letter to the Wairarapa Times-Age newspaper, councillors Rebecca Fox, Leigh Hay, and Alistair Plimmer said the reforms process to date had been “wholly undemocratic” and said councils had been “drip-fed” information.

“In the past 18 months, we as councillors have posed numerous questions to the Department of Internal Affairs [DIA] regarding the financial implications of the reforms,” the councillors said.

“We have consistently been met with obfuscation, prevarication or more frequently arrogantly stating that these weighty decisions are still to be worked out.”

The first piece in a suite of Three Waters legislation – the Water Services Entities Bill - had its first reading in Parliament last week and is now being considered by the Finance and Expenditure Committee, which has called for public submissions.

Submissions close on Friday, July 22, and the committee is due to report back to Parliament by November 11, allowing the remaining stages of the legislative process to be completed before the end of the year.

The three South Wairarapa councillors said it would have been better to “use the millions already spent on this flawed proposal to improve treatment, future-proof the network, and grow the sector capability”.

A DIA spokesperson said the cost of developing a large and complex reform programme like Three Waters was “not insignificant”.

“However the cost of developing the programme so far is a very small proportion of the overall cost of the programme, with most of the cost to date [$523m] being funding allocated to councils like South Wairarapa District Council for investment in their three waters infrastructure.”

This was in addition to the $2 billion “better off” funding allocated to councils and the $500m “no worse off” fund.

The estimated cost of bringing New Zealand’s three waters services up to scratch is between $120b and $185b over the next 30 years.

The three South Wairarapa councillors who have made a stand against the reforms said significant consultation had been done with iwi and not with the wider population.

“This lines up nicely with the proposed co-governance model, which is equally undemocratic and not representative of the whole community,” they said.

A DIA spokesperson said the department had engaged “extensively” on the Three Waters proposals with local government, iwi/Māori, and the wider sector on behalf of New Zealand communities.

The Water Services Entities Bill would establish four public entities to deliver drinking water, wastewater and stormwater services across New Zealand from July 2024.

There would be a two-tier governance structure of the water services entities: regional representative groups, and independent, skills-based, professional boards.

Each regional representative group will consist of between 12 and 14 members, with half of its members appointed from mana whenua within its region and half from territorial authorities.

This is because the government believes it is appropriate to involve local authority owners and mana whenua at the strategic oversight level of the governance structure.

A statement from DIA said water services entities would need to give effect to the principles of Te Tiriti and must give effect to Te Mana o te Wai.

“They also have responsibilities to uphold existing Treaty Settlements that relate to water services provision.

"So it is appropriate that mana whenua are at the table setting expectations for the entities in relation to these matters.”

The independent water service entity boards would run the entities' day-to-day management and oversee the water infrastructure's maintenance and renewal.

The water services entity board will consist of between six and 10 members who collectively have the appropriate skills to manage the infrastructure and service delivery.

They would be directly accountable to the regional representative group.

South Wairarapa District Council and Carterton District Council have not taken an official stance on the reforms.

Neighbouring Masterton District Council is a member of the Communities 4 Local Democracy, a group united in its opposition to the reforms.

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ on Air