Rodney Hide: An act too hard to follow

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

The memo has gone out. Big changes planned for the delivery of water across Auckland.

Auckland Council is advertising for a new chair for Watercare Services. That in itself is neither here nor there. But what is a big deal is that the ad declares that experience in culture change is a plus for the job. That's the council being very clear about what it intends. "Culture change" is what the council wants.

It's easy to see why. Look at prices. Watercare has dropped average water prices 15 per cent. That's unheard of. The councils that previously ran water services across Auckland were planning a 40 per cent increase.

Of course, that's the average drop and for wastewater it's more complicated because the charging regimes varied across Auckland; some districts charged a flat rate and for some the charges were buried in the rate bill. But there's no doubt Watercare has brought prices down across Auckland.

I am sure readers can readily see the problem. It wouldn't do for that culture to take hold. If we see that happening in one part of local government, then why not the rest? I mean, what could be next? Rates going down, not up? And if rates start going down, where will that end? It cannot be contemplated.

Culture change at Watercare is a must. Watercare is to be brought back into local government line.

It's the same for staffing. There used to be 950 people employed to do what Watercare now does. Now there are 648. That's a 30 per cent reduction. That's another reason why Watercare must go through a culture change. The proper culture in councils is to increase staff, not shed them. Again, the culture at Watercare is totally out of whack.

Watercare has also been saving ratepayers' money. It's now up to $104million every year. That's $1billion over 10 years.

Local government organisations don't cut spending. They increase their budgets every year. That's how it's always been done. No wonder Auckland Council is looking for "culture change" at Watercare.

It does make for a problem if one part - and a very large part - of the council is cutting its budget and doing much more with less. Watercare is showing the rest of local government up. That won't do.

Oh, and it hasn't been cutting services. Service has actually improved. Watercare inherited 19 wastewater treatment plants. Six of them didn't have the required discharge consents. Three of those that had discharge consents weren't compliant and six had sufficient capacity only for the next five years. It was a disgrace. Watercare has set to with a strategy to maintain plant compliance, to ensure plants meet their consent conditions, and to get plants with expired consent conditions into compliance. It's a big job.

The service to homes has likewise improved. For example, the people of Pukekohe were getting blackened water piped from dubious underground bores. They now receive Grade A water from the Waikato River pipeline that supplies much of Auckland's water needs.

The people of Pukekohe were especially and understandably concerned at how the super-city changes in governance might adversely affect them. The good news is that Watercare has invested $116million in the Franklin district and residents now have much better water than they have ever had. That's a very pleasing result.

So there we have it. Less cost. Lower prices. Better service.

So Auckland Council wants culture change at Watercare. It's looking for a new chair to deliver.

Of course, it's completely upside-down. The council, on behalf of ratepayers, should be working to preserve Watercare's culture and, indeed, to seed it into the rest of the council's operations.

Ratepayers want lower rates, smaller budgets, fewer staff and better service. That's exactly what Watercare is delivering.

Auckland Council shouldn't be looking to change Watercare's culture; instead, local government should be changing its culture to match Watercare's.

- Herald on Sunday

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