Water supplies can be unsafe (Havelock North tragedy), sewage can erupt in streets (Wellington’s lack of investment) and stormwater inundates and contaminates.
The Government says it has the answer. Take all these responsibilities from failing councils and create four large water entities.
They can raise the billions needed to upgrade services. They can be far more efficient and effective. Voila. The problems will be solved.
At the same time, proceed with shonky and exaggerated figures, promote the plan through puerile advertisements and tell councils they have choices on whether they are part of the plan.
Surprise, surprise. Councils revolted, even the biggest in Auckland and Christchurch headed by former senior Labour politicians.
Next, proclaim the changes “may not be popular but they are necessary”, as Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta did on Wednesday. Councils cannot opt out.
The Government has proceeded rapidly and confirmed the proposals this week before councils had a chance to consult residents and at a time when Covid dominates.
So much for community empowerment. So much for local democracy.
Accuse councils, too, of “misinformation” when they complain about their assets being stripped. Technically, councils have a form of convoluted and distance “ownership”, a Clayton’s ownership. It is through layers of governance and without control.
Ms Mahuta is the one spreading misinformation.
The sop in Wednesday’s announcement — while proceeding at pace notwithstanding the opposition — is to set up a working group to reconsider governance and accountability. It is hard to see significant change occurring.
At present, if businesses or consumers have issues, large or small, they can always hassle their locally accountable mayors and councillors.
But the four entities — one covering almost all the South Island, matching Ngai Tahu territory — will be big monopolies. There is little to stop them from overcharging or overborrowing, underinnovating or underresponding.
A further regulator/watchdog will have to be set up to protect the public’s interests, as the Government is recognising.
The vested interests of mayors and councils are part of the picture. The removal of Three Waters on top of the Resource Management Act changes leaves many councils with not that much left. This is a revolution in New Zealand governance and democracy. No wonder some are close to hysterical in their reactions.
The decision that the governance boards will be 50/50 iwi and non-iwi is also considered by many to be revolutionary.
However, the central Government knows it knows best. Centralisation is the answer. Other options are shut out.
A regulator to make sure basic standards for Three Waters are met is well on the way to being in place. Even National agrees that is a good idea.
Two fundamental issues in the current failures are the inability of some councils to raise the money to do what is necessary and the lack of will for many councils to spend the billions required.
The regulator will put the pressure on for the second matter — one where improvements are already taking place, albeit too slowly.
Surely, there are other funding models than setting up four new bureaucracies distanced from councils for debt-raising purposes.
Whatever. The Government has decided that instead of working with councils it will wave its wand consolidating Three Waters and fundamentally excluding local government from the arrangements.
What’s next, councils must be thinking. After all, the Government has already combined polytechnics and is doing the same with district health boards.
Little now stands in the way of these huge changes. National has said it would overturn them. But its weakness and the popularity of Jacinda Ardern — even if that is slipping — make the prospect of National winning in 2023 unlikely, even this far out.
Although Labour is burning political capital on this matter, other even bigger issues such as Covid are likely to take precedence two years from now.