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Disappointment in Wairarapa at mandated “3 waters” reforms

Report from LDR
Three Waters reforms will now be mandated but reaction in the Wairarapa has not been welcoming with a Masterton councillor calling the government “a deceitful, lying pack of bastards” for the move.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has confirmed that four publicly-owned water service entities [WSE] will be created, and “legislation is a mandated decision”. She said the “voluntary opt-in approach” had changed because the case for change was “compelling”, and “to ignore the state of [three waters] infrastructure would be irresponsible”.

She said rural communities such as those in Wairarapa stood to gain the most benefit from these reforms. “Twenty-two councils in New Zealand had permanent boil-water notices last year – Carterton, Masterton, and South Wairarapa councils are not immune to this.” She also said the new water regulator Taumata Arowai would not tolerate councils failing drinking water standards.

Following the announcement, work was now underway to establish a working group of local government, iwi and water industry experts to work through elements of entity design.

Masterton councillor Tina Nixon said the government had not acted in good faith and called them “a deceitful, lying pack of bastards”. “We understood that we would have a chance to work through the issues with our communities and then decide to support reforms or not. This proposal is a tsunami of badly-framed policy and ineffective and convoluted governance arrangements.”

Masterton Mayor Lyn Patterson was “very disappointed” that the government was proceeding with its proposed model for their Three Waters Reform programme with zero local community consultation.

“I understand the government’s responsibility is to all New Zealand, but mine is to our district. These assets are owned by our community, and I have real concerns about how our community will have any say in how they are managed.”

She said Masterton District Council would work with the government to ensure the district would continue to receive “excellent” three waters provision and management, “and that our outstanding council staff who deal with water are well positioned for roles within the new entities”.

South Wairarapa Mayor Alex Beijen was disappointed that conversations about alternative solutions had not taken place and said the proposed option was backed by “questionable data”. The government had failed to remove his concerns on several fronts, he said. One was that the government had decided to not consult the public at a local level, conducting it only through the select committee process. The second was on ways to achieve good governance “without the nationalisation of non-government assets”.

Other questions yet to be answered centred around the modelling of the true costs to councils, a correct prediction of costs to the public over time, the actual water standards that the council would have to meet to enable assessment of the proposal, and how the current action “broke the Labour Party manifesto on consulting with public on legislation affecting them”.

“We don’t disagree there is a need to review the supply of good clean drinking water and safe disposal of storm and waste water,” Beijen said. “However, we are not convinced, at all, this model is the best solution.”

Carterton District Council [CDC] chief executive Geoff Hamilton was also disappointed with the announcement. “[It] seems to ignore much of our feedback on the reforms, but we are pleased the government has taken on board our feedback regarding the proposed governance model for the Water Services Entities.

“We look forward to working with government to strengthen this area of the reform proposals despite expressing that more time is needed to fully understand the impact on our ratepayers of the proposed reforms.

“We will work with other councils in the proposed Entity C area to ensure our voice is heard and that we are able to mitigate impacts on our Ratepayers and affected staff wherever possible.”

Carterton Deputy Mayor Rebecca Vergunst said more work was needed to understand the impacts and opportunities of the reforms on Carterton ratepayers, and that the community needed to have an opportunity to provide feedback on such significant changes to our three waters services.

She said it was important that rural councils were represented within these working groups to ensure the model worked for smaller communities.

“We still strongly recommend direct consultation with our community, rather than relying on Parliament’s select committee process.

“A healthy and reliable water supply, sustainable waterways, along with rating affordability and democratic accountability are primary concerns for our community and council, and we look forward to working with the government and our local MP to ensure the best outcome for our community.”

Wairarapa MP Kieran McAnulty believed there was still an opportunity to ensure that the community’s voice was heard.” He had written to all five councils within his electorate and said he was keen to meet with them at the earliest opportunity to identify the areas in the proposed governance model where they felt improvements could be made.

“I’ve committed to them that I will contact the Minister on their behalf, proposing the improvements that they come up with.” He said there was a “genuine desire” to get the details of the Three Waters governance structure right.

“I would encourage all councils and members of the public to ensure that they participate in that process.”

Responding to councils’ concerns about the data used as the basis for the reforms, McAnulty said the Department of Internal Affairs was confident that there would be significant savings for ratepayers moving forward. “The vast majority accept that the status quo is unsustainable, that we can’t keep using rates as a way to fund these things. The decision is not a reflection of the people on council – both the workers and the councillors – work incredibly hard and are committed to our communities.

“But the fact remains that the structure of local government and the rating system means that we simply can’t keep increasing rates to pay for this vital infrastructure over the next 30 years.”

The Bill creating the four entities which will manage council water services will go out for public submissions and is due to come back to Parliament in mid-2022. A national transition unit is being set up by the Department of Internal Affairs to work with local councils, iwi and the water industry.

The target date for having the four entities operational is July 2024.