Three Waters swamps council 10-year plans in uncertainty

Photo: File
Photo: file
"Chaotic" Three Waters policy has prompted a rethink among councils in the South about whether they should carry on preparing their 10-year plans.

A move by the government to allow councils to run just annual plans for 2024-25 and then nine-year long-term plan took them by surprise this week.

The Waitaki District Council has taken an identical position to the Dunedin City Council — each is set to make a call on February 27 about whether they defer adoption of the next long-term plan (LTP) by a year.

The Central Otago District Council is considering its options and anticipates making a decision on February 28.

The Queenstown Lakes District Council this week endorsed a three-month deferral for adoption of its LTP, now set to happen on September 19.

Gore District Council interim chief executive Stephen Parry said elected members had yet to consider the possibility of a year’s deferral.

However, the senior management team favoured delay, "given the chaotic state of Three Waters reform, where the only certainty is the previous government’s model is being scrapped, not what the replacement model might look like".

The Gore council last year called for the abolition of the need to prepare a 2024-34 LTP.

Mr Parry also expressed a prescient thought.

"There is a real fear by many that draft LTPs will be well advanced and then potentially railroaded by an unexpected policy change of the new government," he said in November last year.

The government this week repealed much of the previous government’s water reform programme and said further steps about what would replace this were to come.

Councils across the country face mounting costs to maintain and upgrade drinking water, wastewater and stormwater networks, and many have signalled big rates rises will be needed.

Queenstown Lakes deputy mayor Quentin Smith at a meeting this week said the council had already faced a series of "curve balls".

He was in his third term on the council and it was "the most difficult financial position I have seen, by a long shot".

"We are facing potentially a decade of eye-watering rates increases and costs associated with Three Waters," Mr Smith said.

"And we continue to look to government to help us solve that problem."

Mr Smith said other revenue streams were needed and the government should put more money on the table.

"It’s not going to solve the problem by slicing the pie a different way."

Clutha District Mayor Bryan Cadogan said his council was now past the point of no return for getting through its 10-year plan process.

The Clutha council looks set to either meet the usual deadline of June 30, or get near it.

It was unhelpful to be made aware of a government policy adjustment at the 11th hour, he said.

The government’s move might have been beneficial, but getting just one day’s warning before the council dispatched supporting documentation for audit was unsettling, Mr Cadogan said.

Messaging from the government had been "mixed, late and confusing".

Southland District Mayor Rob Scott said his council was still discussing the issue, as the government commentary only came through this week.

A Waitaki District Council spokesman observed the possibility of a year’s deferral went beyond what Minister of Local Government Simeon Brown had signalled late last year.

It was understood a delay could help councils organise their water assets into whatever structure the government legislated for in mid-2024 and in 2025.

When the Dunedin City Council’s infrastructure services committee met on Tuesday, there had been no sign a dramatic change of course could be coming.

However, Cr Kevin Gilbert did ask if there had yet been an indication of how fulsome new information might be or an informed suggestion about options.

Council chief executive Sandy Graham summed up the situation on Tuesday.

"Councillor, no, there’s not," she said.

"One of the themes for the 10-year plan will be uncertainty."