Three Waters: Splitting the opposition

Expect plenty more vehement reaction to the Government’s confirmation of its plans for Three Waters. Last Friday, Infrastructure Minister Grant Robertson and Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced Three Waters is proceeding with modifications. These are most of the recommendations developed by a working group selected to consider criticisms of the original plan. The Government, by agreeing to nearly all of them, is hoping to wean off some of the widespread opposition and disapproval from most local authorities.

This is, in part, a means to divide to try to conquer. Stride on to the front foot, convince key local authority figures and peel off sections of disagreement. The fundamentals of the four large water authorities based on iwi boundaries, the equal governance input from iwi and the loss of effective ownership of what are council assets all remain. Councils and councillors have a wide range of interests and attitudes.

Win over some and the job of implementation will be easier and the fallout less.

Once again, in an approach which has dogged the whole process, the Government is being disingenuous. Mr Robertson made great play of the fact changes will make it well-nigh impossible to privatise water, wastewater and stormwater services.

But that was never one of the crucial issues. Councils, and the National Party for that matter, oppose privatisation.

Similarly, the need for substantial change is acknowledged just about everywhere. Much, much more money will need to be spent upgrading Three Waters in most of New Zealand. Smaller communities and small councils, in particular, cannot and will not be able to cope with what is demanded without some sort of joint arrangement. One contentious aspect always has been mana whenua co-governance. Iwi were represented on the working group and that was not going to change. Bring along those sympathetic to involving iwi more in discussions and decisions.

Co-governance, brought in for Three Waters by the Government without wider debate or clear explanations, will continue to divide.

Co-governance, however, helps the Government bring along those sympathetic to involving iwi more in discussions and decisions.The matter has splintered possible council co-ordination and co-operation against Three Waters.

Another layer of representation towards governance is to be established, and councils are being given "shares" in the entities.

Whether that "ownership" — without any real control over the assets — is meaningful is a moot point.

The likes of Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan, who was brought into the tent as a member of the working group, as well as others like Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins recognise the Government’s determination to go ahead. They, at least, see the modifications as improvements.

Councils can be accused of self-interest because their responsibilities will be slashed. Are we, in due course, going to see senior executives and councillors paid less because the scope of their jobs has shrunk?

Many a council has been seriously remiss in the maintenance of this infrastructure. But whatever upheaval was to proceed, the key is not the Government’s plan but the establishment of the national regulator, Taumata Arowai. It will oversee and demand standards and would have done so under any other structure.

Another big issue was always funding and the weakness of council balance sheets. This was used to justify the creation of the water entities at more than arm’s length from the councils. The organisations would have the wherewithal to borrow the vast sums of money required. Given Government heft, though, another funding guarantee system could have been worked out. The coming months, especially as the local elections loom, will see lots of opposition emerge. The Government, having won some support with its latest changes, will tough it out. Ironically, such are the costs and complications that the Government could well be sparing councils all sorts of nightmares. It will not be them but the new water service entity boards charging homeowners soaring bills.


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