District councillors have been getting a lot of campaign emails recently about the Government’s 3 Waters reforms. They come with no reply addresses, but they deserve a response. This is my open reply to those emails, and update for the community on 3 Waters reforms.
I’ve written about this before but as a quick reminder, the 3 Waters are: drinking water, waste water (mostly sewage) and storm water (mostly rain run-off). It’s not about who owns the water itself or water quality, but rather who controls the pipes, pumps and drains that moves it all around and treats it.
Local councils around the country have generally not invested what they should have in water infrastructure over the decades and things are starting to get desperate. I guess they hoped the Government would bail them out. This reform is the Government’s response. It basically brings control of all council owned water infrastructure across the country under 4 super-sized water service providers. We will be part of one that covers most of the middle North Island.
These will be owned by local councils and run by independent boards. Like councils, tangata whenua get some high level representation, but it’s limited. The main idea is that economies of scale will get the much needed work done cheaper. There is some debate about how big those saving might be, but there will almost certainly be some. It also gets cheaper loans and big urban centres will cross-subsidise smaller populations like ours.
It’s important to remember that these changes are driven by Wellington. For people sending emails to local councillors, it would be more effective to send them to the Minister for Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta, since she actually gets to decide. We do not.
Which is what Whakatāne District Council did. We sent a letter to the Minister, and met with her on zoom. We made very detailed comments about what we saw was wrong with the reforms. These included concerns about the over-all approach, the governance arrangements, the lack of clarity about key aspects and the lack of say for our communities. I wrote a detailed article about this in the Beacon a few months ago. We were unanimous that we were against the proposals.
I want to emphasise this because there is some misinformation being put about. We were unanimous that we opposed the reforms. We did disagree on whether to join ‘Communities 4 Local Democracy’, a break-away group of councils, but that was just about whether it would be an effective advocate for Whakatāne’s interests. I still don’t think they have been, but we did end up joining them.
Almost everyone agrees some reform is needed though. It’s really about what that should look like. Local Government has not done a good job with water in most of the country. Recent letters to The Beacon about rates have highlighted the issue. Some people already find it hard to pay their rates bill, and so councillors are twitchy about putting rates up more than they need to. The true cost of that is underinvestment in water and other infrastructure.
We all hate rates rises, but good water infrastructure is expensive and it has to be paid for. Some people point to the Civic Centre Earthquake Strengthening, or the Commercial Boat Harbour development as places to save money, but both of these have very little impact on rates. I’ll write another piece about why and also why they are both so important. What is driving rates rises now is the need to catch up on investment in water infrastructure. Whakatāne is actually quite well placed compared to many councils, especially when it comes to drinking water, but the bill is still eye-watering. So I can see why the Government wants to take investment decisions out of the hands of politicians. The problem, of course, is that means less local accountability.
Our council has made our objections clear and specific, as have others. The Government actually listened to some of those and while they remain committed to the overall reform, especially the 4 big water service providers, they have made quite a few changes. There will be a review after 5 years. There will now be a subregional voice and consumer advocates embedded in the structure. They’ve made it harder to privatise by requiring a unanimous vote of all shareholding councils to do so. To name a few.
In response to National’s promise to roll back the reforms if they win the next election, it will now require a 75% majority of Parliament to do so. This will be almost impossible to achieve. So regardless of our opposition, the reforms will go ahead and they will be locked in. Labour has burned too much political capital already to turn back, they have introduced the bill to Parliament, and they have the votes. As a council our responsibility now is to make sure our communities are not disadvantaged. We are a small fish in the water services pond. By developing our infrastructure investment plans to the point where they can easily be picked up by the new entity, we can influence the work programme and make sure that the needs of our communities don’t slip to the back of the queue.
Critical projects like Matatā waste water, Murupara waste water, finding new sources for our drinking water supplies, are vital to the well-being of our communities. It’s a big program of work to get them ready to hand over to the new provider, but doing it well means our communities don’t lose out to the bigger urban centres. And this is just the first stage of a programme of local government reform. We need to keep communicating as clearly as we can about these big, complex issues. Being smart, adaptable, solution focussed and strategic is going to be important for the council for the foreseeable future.
Published in the Whakatane Beacon. 10/6/22