The Communities 4 Local Democracy group protest against Three Waters at Parliament last year

The anti Three Waters campaign which seemed so simple during the election campaign is now bogged down in a Select Committee as submitter after submitter raises issues with the replacement legislation.

The so-called “Local Water Done Well” has now morphed into the Local Government (Water Services Preliminary Arrangements) Bill, which is currently before the Finance and Expenditure Committee.

But the Bill says nothing about how the new water entities might be funded

One of the major gripes about the Three Waters proposal was that it created four co-governed water entities. This, according to its critics, eliminated local control at the same time as Maori got 50 per cent control.

Under the new legislation, transitional provisions will now include the requirement for councils to prepare Water Services Delivery Plans within 12 months to demonstrate their commitment to delivering water services “that are financially sustainable, meet regulatory standards for water infrastructure quality, and unlock housing growth.”

There are no provisions for mandatory Maori seats on the boards of any new entities that might be created under the legislation.

However, the big issue remains what it always was: how to pay to upgrade the country’s drinking stormwater and sewage infrastructure.

Fundamental to the original Three Waters proposition was the argument that over the next 30 years, New Zealand would need to spend $120 – $185 billion to maintain and upgrade the Three Waters infrastructure.

Without reform, the average household rate for all of New Zealand was expected to be $1,900- $9,000 per year by 2051; with reform, it was expected to be $800 – $1,640 by 2051.

At the same time, the new water bodies were to be required to bring their drinking water up to new, more stringent standards established after the 2016 Havelock North water poisoning of over 5000 people.

Advertisment

The Clutha District Council Mayor, Bryan Cadogan, in a fiery submission to the Finance and Expenditure Committee yesterday, zeroed in on the uncertainty about how getting water up to standard would be funded under the new proposals.

He said his Council had 6849 urban rating units, and the Council’s long-term plan forecasted that capital and operational expenditures on three waters over the next ten years would total $600 million.

The plan projected three waters’ urban costs to increase from approximately $1,300 per year per ratepayer to about $5,730 in 2033/34.

“The sheer scale of the problem and our inability to truly defend our position is consigning our beautiful district and the people we’re attempting to serve to financial ruination,” he said.

“I do not say we’re going bankrupt lightly.

“I believe Clutha sits about mid-pack amongst the councils, but if we go bankrupt in year 11 and other councils find themselves in that invidious position in year seven, does that mean we’re the winner?

“This is a disaster.

“And if you choose to continue to abdicate from your responsibility, the blame will lie squarely on your shoulders and it’s on both sides of the house.”

The South Wairarapa, Carterton, and Masterton have already decided to merge with Wellington Water to create a mini Three Waters entity.

But, though those Councils are relatively small, the issues for the smallest councils which were raised by Clutha remain.

The Wairarapa Councils believe that the Government needs to reverse one of its fundamental Three Waters reform planks, non-compulsions, to deal with the smallest Councils.

One of the risks, as we see it in the current legislation, with joint arrangements of voluntary rather than mandatory, is that some smaller provincial councils grappling with the costs of renewals, compliance and resilience as opposed to growth, will not be invited into a joint arrangement as they do not have the population to deliver cost efficiencies or their priorities don’t align with the larger councils,” said Robyn Wells, the Water Transition Principal Advisor to the South Wairarapa District Council.

“We don’t imagine this is an outcome any of us want to see.”

Wells also said the costs likely to be imposed on Wairarapa would be “unacceptable”, so she made a subtle call for Government funding.

“The worst case for all of us, we believe, is that there is a double impost on our ratepayers who will see both an increase in rates and a new charge for water service as greater than the existing burden,” she said.

“If we get this wrong, we must together do everything we can to mitigate this risk, and we are signalling here that we will need timely support and guidance from the government to ensure that any costs because of the transition to and implementation of new arrangements, will not exacerbate the cost impacts on ratepayers.”

However, Manawatu Mayor Helen Warboys, who led the campaign against Three Waters, supported the Government’s proposals.

“We support the proposed bill,” she said.

“We support the ability to hold onto the ownership of our own assets and the ability to determine the best structure and delivery method, along with the financing arrangements for our ratepayers. “

But what that support showed was that the new legislation may work much better for bigger and more affluent Councils like Manawatu than smaller rural Councils.

Warboys was unwilling to see her Council have to subsidise any other Councils.

“Given that we have invested well, we don’t want to penalise our ratepayers by having to subsidise any neighbours,” she said.

Labour MP Deborah Russell then suggested that Warboys would penalise taxpayers instead.

“It spreads the load across the country, acknowledging that there will be some councils that will need support.”

Under the original Three Waters plans, Manawatu would have been joined into a larger entity that would have included some small rural Councils that might have been in the position of Clutha.

The Select Committee hearings may confirm that the real opposition to Three Waters was based on the reluctance of bigger Councils to subsidise their smaller neighbourhoods.