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In July, the Government announced its three-year, $761 million Three Waters Reform Programme, intended to improve the safety and quality of drinking water services, and the environmental performance of wastewater and stormwater systems nationwide.
The programme is divided into three "tranches", and will run until June 30, 2023, but Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan said local authorities such as his were still largely in the dark when it came to "hard detail" about its effects on investment in, and ownership of, assets.
He said he was worried councils, ratepayers and water asset stakeholders, including Rural Water Scheme participants, could become committed to change without appreciating the long-term consequences.
"The programme talks about establishing new ‘water service delivery entities’ that are multi-regional and asset-owning, without going into detail about what form those might take.
"If we look at something like Rural Water Schemes, for a long time they’ve enjoyed substantial control and ownership of their local assets. Do these reforms mean that control and decision-making could head to, say, Christchurch, potentially limiting local representation?
"I suspect when councillors are up on the town hall stage in three years’ time taking the flak, [Local Government] Minister [Nanaia] Mahuta won’t be there at our side."
Mr Cadogan said greater co-operation between rural and urban stakeholders would be necessary.
"Almost half of our urban centres rely on rural water supplies. How do we balance the stringent new rules for drinking water quality with the lower cost demands of farmers for basic stock water provision?
"Without knowing the detail of who will be in charge and how the rules will be set, we have more questions than answers at present."
An initial $6.4 million in funding for Three Waters infrastructure projects in Clutha had been secured after the council signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with the Government regarding the reforms.
He said further funding under later programme tranches could require a binding commitment to embrace further reform.
"One of the aims of the reforms is improving affordability for authorities and consumers. But if decision-making in setting water rates is moved elsewhere, in future we may have little influence over questions of cost.
"Ratepayers need to ask themselves, ‘Do we want this?"’
Ratepayers can have their say on the reforms during the council’s long-term plan consultation in March next year.