Health of water to be priority

The Dunedin City Council will continue placing the health of water above economic concerns, despite a government directive proposing to change priorities.

Council infrastructure chairman Jim O’Malley spoke to Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Select Committee yesterday about the Local Government (Water Services Preliminary Arrangements) Bill.

The Bill requires territorial authorities, either on their own or jointly, to submit a water services delivery plan outlining how water services will be delivered financially and sustainably.

It also removes the previous government’s principle of Te Mana o te Wai for delivering water services, which placed "the health and wellbeing of water bodies and freshwater ecosystems and the health needs of people (such as drinking water)" at the forefront.

Instead, authorities must consider economic concerns alongside health and wellbeing.

Dr O’Malley said the council would continue to operate under these principles, because they produced "good outcomes" for drinking water.

He told the committee he was concerned changing the principles and putting economic concerns first could mean the resulting standards did not "adequately protect the health of freshwater and associated values".

The government introduced the Bill after it scotched the previous government’s Three Waters reform, which would have delegated ownership and authority of councils’ drinking water, wastewater and stormwater to 10 separate regional water authorities.

Dr O’Malley said the council was pleased the government was allowing councils the ability to retain ownership of water management.

But he, Three Waters manager David Ward and policy analyst Katherine Quill expressed concern about the fact "financially stable" was not adequately defined.

"Given how important the concept of financially stable appears in this Bill, it is essential that council understands exactly what this entails and what other elements are required."

Dr O’Malley was also concerned about the fact some territorial authorities might be under "substantial pressure" to complete a delivery plan.

"Council does not want to find itself in a position where a Crown water services specialist is appointed to facilitate or prepare [a plan] and direct council to adopt it."

At the select committee meeting, MP Deborah Russell asked Dr O’Malley whether Dunedin would consider amalgamating its services.

Dr O’Malley said it was unlikely in the immediate future.

"Because our systems don't really touch, we won't get much in the way of efficiencies."

The council had also spent the past four years "ramping up" its capital works programme to ensure water assets were in the best condition possible should it have to be "handed over" to a larger authority, he said.