The Three Waters saga has bred scepticism and mistrust.
First, is the "sham" consultation and compulsion.
Councils were told they could opt out of the planned four large water entities, and the vast majority wanted to.
Councils, although already peeved by the puerile advertising campaign cynically designed to soften up the public, did their best to understand the complex proposals and to begin consultation with residents.
Time ran out. There were just eight weeks to come to grips with the plan itself and for their own "consultation" with their residents.
Most did their best to comment constructively — only to find opting out was an illusion.
It has been revealed that Cabinet had agreed in June, before consultation began, to an ‘‘all-in legislated’’ strategy because the reforms, in practice, required eliminating the possibility of opting out.
Cabinet papers showed a final confirmation of compulsion would be delayed ‘‘following a short period of socialising the policy proposals and final support package with the local government sector’’.
In other words, pretend no decision had been made when it in reality taken place.
A second sticking point concerns ‘‘ownership’’. The Government claims councils will still own their billions of dollars worth of water assets. A tiered structure makes appointments to the boards of the entities.
The councils, however, effectively would have no control, no effective say. So-called ownership would be meaningless. Three councils are pursuing action in the High Court on this point.
Any council input is further diluted because of iwi 50/50 representation on the appointment group.
It has been argued this structure is a backdoor, undemocratic step towards Maori co-governance. This is another cause of cynicism in some quarters.
Mayors representing 23 councils last week took concerns to Parliament in a group called Communities 4 Local Democracy.
It calls for local influence in decision-making to be retained. It fears for the loss of accountability.
The entities will be monopolies — just as councils providing water services are now — and will have the power to rate. But they will not be answerable to elected representatives.
Otago and Southland councils, while largely opposed to the plans, are not part of that "Local Democracy" group. They are adopting differing approaches. Dunedin is united on its opposition to compulsion but divided on other matters.
The Government backed off a little when it agreed to review the governance structure. It appears the new blueprint would be that every council has potential representation on the group appointing the directors of the entities. How unwieldy would that be?
Because Local Government minister Nanaia Mahuta seems so determined to push through the plan, delaying the introduction of the draft legislation until February was surprising.
Another ground for scepticism has been because of the poor quality of much of the information and the "facts" on which the reforms are based. The scale of the savings to be made by the water entities defy belief.
Notwithstanding the details and misinformation, a tsunami of spending on drinking water, wastewater and stormwater is required. Change is needed or too many services in too many places will remain poor and/or deteriorating.
Water infrastructure is often out of sight and councils can focus spending elsewhere. Basics are neglected. Many vanity and nice-to-have projects proceed instead.
The key to improving Three Waters’ performance is now in place through the water regulator Taumata Arowai. It should reveal failings as well as pressuring Three Waters’ organisations to undertake what is required. National has supported the regulator concept.
At the same time, a major review of local government is looming, and the Resource Management Act is being replaced. It would make more sense to consider local government’s role in Three Waters as part of that review.
Could, for example, better Three Waters’ efficiencies be achieved by larger councils and more councils working together while retaining local accountability?