Blunt messages on Three Waters Reform

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By Robyn Bristow

The Hurunui and Kaikoura District Councils have delivered a blunt message to the Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta on the government’s proposed Three Water Reforms.

Their feedback comes as concern mounts that the government will introduce a bill to make the reform mandatory for all 67 councils throughout New Zealand, instead of an option being available to opt out.

The councils in letters giving feedback on the reforms, say they will not agree to transfer any water, wastewater or storm water assets to any other entity without first undertaking a full formal consultation under the Local Government Act’s provisions, with their communities.

They were also concerned about the importance of local decision making, the Government acting contrary to the principles of the Local Government Act, and the financial implications of the reforms that could see the costs for water services being spread over a very large area encompassing a large number of district councils, with the possibility of some communities substantially subsidising others.

Both called on the government to slow the reform programme so councils could gather all the information necessary to adequately inform their communities of the reform’s affects.

The Hurunui District Council approved its feedback to the government unanimously, saying the reforms are not well designed, are too light on detail, and do not put customers at the heart of the services.

The council is critical of the governance model, saying it is not fit for purpose as it has the effect of distancing the accountability of the entities from their customers.

“Delivery of three waters is a service, it is not an exercise in asset management or accounting. Services have customers, and the best services are those that are most directly connected to their customers,” its feedback letter says.

The council says for its district the financial model of the reforms did not reflect the reality on the ground, and was concerned about the implication for rural water and the lack of definition around stormwater.

It was also critical of the government’s advertising campaign.

“The public advertising campaign for the three waters reform has landed very badly with our largely rural communities. They found the campaign condescending and light on facts.

“The monies invested in the advertising campaign, in our view, would have been much better spent if officials had publicly explained their proposals rather than rely on public relations spin.

“We would respectfully suggested that there is a considerable amount of work to be done by the government if you wish to take the public of this district with you on the reform process,” the council says in a letter.

The council calls on the government to work directly with communities to help them understand any proposed reform, and clearly define it.

It says after having conversations with its communities it has resolved to under take full consultation with them about the future of Three Waters service delivery if the Government proceeded with its proposal.

It will use the Special Consultative Procedure set out in the Local Government Act for future decision making.

Mayor Marie Black urged the government to take a pause and recognise the role of local government.

“Local government has a critical role as the voice of the people and has to be heard,” she said.

If the reforms go ahead the three North Canterbury councils will become part of an entity covering most of the South Island.

The Kaikoura Council expressed concerns to the Minister about socialising the cost of upgrading assets and complying with water standards and resource consent conditions. The council says this would lead to a “mixture of councils who are financial winners and losers”.

Kaikoura says councils are tasked with ensuring the wellbeing and best interests of their district, not the region or nation that they are in, making it difficult to agree to an arrangement in which they would be subsidising other communities outside their district.

Initial feedback from the Kaikoura community showed 95 percent of the 200 respondents wanted to retain local influence and say in respect of how local services were provided.

Community views about the importance if improving health and environmental standards were much more variable, with 50 percent recognising improvements were relatively important, but only about 25 percent were willing to pay to achieve this.

A total of 76 percent were not comfortable with the possibility of costs being spread over a wide area with some communities substantially subsiding others.