11 June 2022
You may have seen, read about or even been to some of the Groundswell and Taxpayer Union meetings recently around 3 Waters. These meetings have been well attended, attracting hundreds of people around the key theme of “Stopping Three Waters” and anger at the government pushing ahead with the reforms irrespective of the views of the people and a number of councils up and down the country.
From my perspective as a district councillor I can understand the frustration, and a lot of it I share. The evolution of this reform has gone from bad to worse, and I must admit I was skeptical right from the start. There were some pretty sizable carrots being dangled at the early stages to voluntarily “opt in” to the information gathering stages, but with the promise of being able to “opt out” later it was pretty much a no brainer, and all councils took the carrot.
I attended the national conference in July last year, where the controversial heads of agreement was signed. The big announcement was subsequently made around the associated funding packages - essentially how much each council was going to receive for “shedding it's assets” and the assurance that government had not decided to mandate the reform yet.
I left the conference feeling angry and disappointed with LGNZ and with a gut feel that we were not going to have any say on the future of the reform, and that at any given moment it would be mandated. I also discovered, along with many other councils that the data they were using for their assumptions backing the reform was incorrect, and in some cases resulted in significant distortion of the figures that were being used to justify the “case for change.”
Councils up and down the country were voicing their frustration, and we were then given an 8 week period to understand the information and identify areas of concern. Southland District Council met during this time and with the help of Morrison Low, who had done a lot of work for Otago/Southland Councils during the initial phases of the reform, we produced a list of questions to the Minister. Morrison Low commented on the thoroughness of our approach, and were impressed by the level of questions that we were asking.
I was not surprised to then learn in a “1pm press conference” that the reforms were being mandated. I can remember the moment very clearly. We were sitting in council chambers, and I nearly snapped my pen. After having to watch months of the patronisingly wrong cartoon adverts on TV, still seeing the incorrect data on DIA websites, and hearing the phrase that “we are working in partnership with local government” this is the way that we find out that they are going back on their word?
As a council we were pretty disappointed in this, and we penned a letter to the Prime Minister stating our concerns. Seven months have passed, and we are yet to receive a response!
LGNZ was doing a bit of work behind the scenes, and managed to negotiate a working group to report on the reform and recommend changes to the government. Whilst this was a great step forward, I had two major concerns. Firstly, the terms of reference that the government provided for the working group severely limited the scope of what they could report on. Secondly, the Water Services Entity Bill was going to be read in parliament prior to the completion of the findings of the working group!
Thankfully LGNZ pushed back hard, and managed to have the release of the bill changed until after the working group finished, but the fact that they had to do this in the first place is a real concern to me.
From a council perspective, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The thing that concerns me the most about this reform - loss of control - is happening right now. With the reform being mandated, we have lost the ability to have any control or effective say in where it is going. The only remaining mechanism for us to raise our concerns is the select committee, which is coming up soon. As a councillor, I will be putting forward a loud voice around my thoughts on all of this, and hopefully this will form part of a strong submission to the select committee.
The two outcomes that the Taxpayers Union and Groundswell were asking for at the meetings were for councils to leave LGNZ and for a binding referendum. This is where my views differ, and I will explain why.
If you had asked me in July last year at the conference should we consider pulling out of LGNZ? I probably would have replied with YES. There is however a wider context around this organisation and their relevance and importance to us as a sector moving forwards. I genuinely believe that they have learnt from what happened around the signing of the heads of agreement, and they have had some successes since that I have alluded to above. Three waters is not the only reform that we are dealing with right now, and there are two additional very critical reforms happening concurrently that will have a significant impact on local government - namely the Future of Local Government and the RMA.
I would expect that LGNZ have learnt their lesson, and would not repeat what they did in the future and the bigger picture around the other functions that they perform for our sector makes them an extremely valuable organisation to be involved in.
For local government to undertake a referendum on 3 waters would be a costly and a futile exercise. Like I have said above, this reform is being run by central government, and with the mandation at the end of last year, all of the power is in their hands. If a referendum was to take place, it would need to be at the central government level.
I do believe that there is some level of change required around 3 Waters, especially around the regulation of councils to ensure that a high standard is being set and adhered to nationwide. This has already happened with the establishment of Taumata Arowai, and I have no problem with this component of the reform.
As far as Southland is concerned, I am comfortable with the state of our 3 waters for the short to medium term. In the long term there are going to be significant costs that are going to put a lot of pressure on our small ratepayer base.
It is very hard to apply a one size fits all approach, as different councils in different parts of the country are in different places. Some have poor infrastructure that needs to be dealt with yesterday, some have high levels of debt on their balance sheets and some have neither.
I do not agree with the 4 Entity model, and have very serious concerns about the loss of the local voice and the associated accountability, and also the increased costs that centralised approaches such as this normally attract.
The current system is broken, but in my opinion the proposed solution will not appropriately resolve many, if any, of the issues that we are currently facing.
At local government level, our hands are tied. I encourage anyone with strong feelings on this reform to utilise the select committee process. This is the only remaining avenue that the government has to listen to, to have your voice heard.
Irrespective of one's views on the reform, I feel that we need to hold central government to account on following the correct process around such significant changes. Any deviation from the democratic system that has been designed to protect society should be appropriately addressed. We need a solution that is ultimately in the best interests of the people of this nation, and also supported by the people of this nation.