Auckland Council intends to close the gap between its rates shortfall and expenditure by using $127 million it is due to receive from the Government for handing over its water assets as part of the Three Waters reforms.
The water assets of local councils will belong to the new Water Services Entities or WSE, shareholders of which are local councils.
Auckland Council will jointly own the northern WSE with Kaipara District Council, Whangārei City Council, and the Far North District Council. Auckland will lose its water assets but will be shareholder in the new entity.
Shares in the WSEs will be allocated proportionate to population, so each council will receive one share for every 50,000 people. Auckland Council will therefore have a larger shareholding than the Northland councils.
In other words, Auckland Council will no longer be an outright owner of its water assets, but a part-owner.
Of course, there is a question about whether money gained for loss of assets should be used to offset debt, but there is a far bigger question for Aucklanders.
Just what are those assets that the citizens of Auckland are due to lose?
That's a question I have put both within Auckland Council and to the Three Waters team in the Department of Internal Affairs.
I have not received a reassuring answer and the citizens of Auckland need to be aware of what is at stake.
The reason for my asking was that I was seeking some reassurance that the parkland of the Waitākere Ranges is not among those assets.
The Waitākere Ranges Regional Park comprises around 17,800 hectares stretching from the Manukau Harbour to Te Henga and from the Tasman Coast to Swanson and Titirangi.
Some 6619 hectares of this parkland is a water supply area which Auckland Council makes available through licenses and leases to the Council's wholly-owned CCO, Watercare. This area includes water catchment lands, five dams, buffer lands and exclusive use lands.
In the south, the 17,800 hectare Hunua Ranges Regional Park contains 14,000 hectares of water supply land leased and licensed to Watercare.
When I asked Auckland Council whether land would be part of the assets removed from Council ownership, I was told: "Decisions about what assets will transfer to the new water entities are yet to be made. Assets such as pipes and water treatment plants are clearly used for the provision of water services, so these would transfer to the new entities. In regards to land in drinking water catchments and around storage dams, these are often used for other purposes as well (eg recreational with walking/mountain biking tracks etc).
"Whilst there has been nothing official from the Government, the thinking is that there would have to be discussions between councils and the new water entities to decide which assets transferred to the entities, and which would be owned by councils. There would have to be legal arrangements put in place so that (for example) the water entities would have access to reservoirs, or easements put in place so walking tracks could continue to be used by the public."
So, no reassurance there.
I received a similar reply from the Three Waters team at the Department of Internal Affairs which said that it would announce which assets were included sometime in the second half of 2022 when a bill will be introduced into Parliament.
The first of several bills was introduced to Parliament on June 2 but does not cover which assets are included.
"Continued public ownership is a bottom line for the Government. Councils will collectively own the Water Service Entities on behalf of their communities. The National Transition Unit is currently working through a process of determining which assets will transfer to the four new Water Service Entities."
When I asked specifically whether land might be included in the assets I was told: "The list of assets and liabilities that will transfer to the new Water Service Entity will be worked through during the transition period."
No reassurance here either.
So just what's at stake?
The creation of the great park in the Waitākere Ranges was the project Auckland citizens chose in the 1930s as their preference to commemorate the foundation of the city in 1840.
The Auckland Centennial Memorial Park Act was passed in 1941 and local councils were levied to provide funds to systematically identify and purchase land to make up the great park.
The actual core of the park went back to citizen action in 1894 when a deputation, led by the professor of biology at Auckland University, Algernon Thomas – and including the NZ Herald's co-owner W S Wilson - pleaded with Auckland City Council to preserve an area of forest owned by the Government to protect it from the millers.
Kauri had been extracted from much of the Waitākere Ranges over the previous 50 years and there was a concern that soon there would be no areas left where Aucklanders could enjoy the grandeur of the kauri forest.
The Government of the day responded by making nearly 2023 hectares available "for recreation and for the conservation of native fauna and flora", thought to be the first time a New Zealand Government vested land in a local council for conservation.
"Scenic preservation" as it was called then gained strength through the early years of the 20th century and in Auckland a wide range of prominent citizens campaigned for a great park in the West, the campaign reaching fruition with the Auckland Centennial Memorial Park.
A park board mapped out exactly which blocks of land it wished to buy and this plan was systematically pursued by Auckland Regional Authority and its successors.
The purchase by Auckland Council of the Taitomo Block at Piha (The Gap) in 2014 was identified through this planning nearly 80 years previously.
The parkland is also deemed to be of national significance through the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act passed in 2008 after a long campaign, and is covered by an Order in Council. You could not talk about anything more intrinsic to Auckland than the Waitākere
The Waitākere Ranges have enabled Aucklanders and visitors from further afield to enjoy an asset of enormous beauty, ecological value and recreational benefit.
What our forebears sought for us has indeed come to fruition creating a great park, a living wilderness, place of respite and carbon sequester right on the edge of the city.
At the same time, it has provided 20 per cent of the city's drinking water (Hunua Regional Park, 60 per cent).
The Government needs to know that taking away Aucklanders' direct and sole ownership of this birthright and consigning it to co-governance with other distant councils, will be fought to the last ridge, the last ocean beach, the last magnificent tree-clad valley.
• Sandra Coney is an elected member of the Waitakere Ranges Local Board and a former chair of the parks' committee in Auckland Regional Council and Auckland Council.