Water reform still an issue, says mayor

Photo: Newsline
An Otago mayor says the upcoming costs of the Water Services Reform could lead to "catastrophic rate increases" and the change in government does not mean the issue is going away any time soon.

The National Party has promised to repeal the previous Labour Party government’s waters reform within the first 100 days, which in its most recent form would have created 10 entities overseeing water infrastructure in New Zealand.

Instead, National’s "local water done well" policy would restore council ownership and control, set strict rules for water quality and investment in infrastructure and ensure water services were financially sustainable.

But Clutha District Mayor Bryan Cadogan said this would not solve the cost of upgrading water infrastructure.

"Unless we stop people going to the toilet, you can’t stop Three Waters," Mr Cadogan said.

National has also proposed creating a water infrastructure regulator providing advice on council proposals for the delivery of water services.

Where the government concludes that a council could not achieve financial sustainability by, for example, gaining access to long-term borrowing, it would provide limited one-off funding to bridge the gap.

Mr Cadogan was unsure of this approach.

"The new tactic of allowing councils more money is simply giving us more rope," he said.

Many councils were in trouble when it came to rising costs for improving water infrastructure, Mr Cadogan said.

The Department of Internal Affairs has estimated $120 billion-$185b will need to be invested in the country’s water systems over the next 30 years.

"Three Waters has the imminent ability to bankrupt both pensioners and vulnerable families, and I don’t say that lightly," Mr Cadogan said.

"We could see catastrophic change in rate increases."

The issue of water infrastructure improvements was on a scale "unprecedented in council history", Mr Cadogan said.

"A lot of the discussion has been on side issues, such as co-governance, rather than the issue of affordability," he said.

He would like to see greater economies of scale, including an entity for the entire South Island overseeing water infrastructure.

It needed to be put in the hands of experts who had a background in the best way to address 80-year-old infrastructure, Mr Cadogan said.

"We’ve got to take the politics out of it, and we have got to start talking about the true issue, which is finances," he said.

Dunedin city councillor Sophie Barker also said she had concern about the future direction of the reform.

"Dunedin is going to be challenged to fully fund its three waters and we will need to look hard at how we do this — we’re running an unbalanced budget due to not funding our water depreciation for this and last year, so that’s a matter for a lot of concern and discussion," Cr Barker said.

"We do well on safe drinking water, but do have a lot of older infrastructure that needs upgrading and replacing. Infrastructure is expensive."

She was pleased Dunedin was going to retain local ownership and control of water, she said.

"However, there are still big water infrastructure issues for the future and how the really big projects will be financed."