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The government’s proposed three waters programme is facing council backlash (Getty Images)
The government’s proposed three waters programme is facing council backlash (Getty Images)

The BulletinOctober 1, 2021

Tide turns on three waters plan

The government’s proposed three waters programme is facing council backlash (Getty Images)
The government’s proposed three waters programme is facing council backlash (Getty Images)

Nothing has gone right with the government’s proposal to centralise water infrastructure and a revolt by local leaders is growing, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

The government’s three waters plan is facing a growing revolt from councils. The idea is simple enough: take the 67 council-controlled authorities responsible for managing drinking water, wastewater and stormwater (the three waters) and merge them into four big regional entities. The government says it’ll increase water management standards and save households thousands in reduced rates over the coming decades. But as RNZ reports, councils from Auckland to Invercargill are lining up in opposition. Only six have endorsed the proposal and council submissions to government closed yesterday.

A number of mayors are actually quite upset with the proposal. Matamata-Piako mayor Ash Tanner spoke with Newshub and he was angry, unironically calling the plan “crap” and ordering authorities to “back off”. The relationship between local government minister Nanaia Mahuta and councils got off to a rocky start when the Beehive ran a glitzy ad campaign, voiced by actress Rachel House, that claimed the current water networks were being mishandled. Some mayors were steamed by seeing animated sludge coming out of their similarly cartoonish pipes on television.

Most of the moves by government have only made the situation worse. The government never quite apologised for the ad campaign and some versions of it are still running. Then it offered councils $2.5 billion in exchange for a significant chunk of their asset base. In comparison to what’s been offered, the national water network is expected to need up to $185 billion for repairs over the next three decades. While councils would lose the liability, they also lose the revenues and assets. It’s such a large transaction that it might undermine the financial viability of some councils. According to the NZ Herald, Kaikōura has been warned it might not be able to exist once the value of its pipes is taken off its books.

Finally, the four big regional authorities would muscle councils and mayors out of the water business completely. The boundaries of the entities also don’t correspond to regional identities or problems. Auckland doesn’t want to lose Watercare, while Wellington doesn’t want to get lumped in with Nelson and Gisborne. Based on how the capital’s water system is faring, you’d think the feeling would be mutual but Nelson’s mayor is one of the few to back the proposal.

The next move rests with the government. Mahuta made it clear at parliament this week that she intends to push on with three waters, in spite of opposition. At question time yesterday, she said that there is “near universal agreement that the status quo is not sustainable”. The opposition howled. The minister has generally sidestepped questions about council opposition, instead repeating that the package will make the systems better for everyone. She conceded yesterday that some councils have raised concerns about subsidising their neighbours in the future, but said they shouldn’t be worried because the large entities will have “better capital asset management”. Since the carrot seems to have failed to sway local representatives, the minister has not ruled out forcing the change on councils despite their opposition. As the Nelson Mail reports, there have been complaints that the government’s drive to centralise locally-owned systems is just “not the New Zealand way”.

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