"We request an immediate stop to the Three Waters reform programme."
That was the conclusion of a letter tabled at last Tuesday's Taupō District Council meeting, where the councillors and mayor unanimously rejected the Government's Three Waters reform proposals.
The Three Waters reform is a central government proposal that will have an impact on local government and in its current form proposes setting up four entities across the country to manage the three waters in their area. Taupō district would be part of Entity B, which would run from Thames/Coromandel to Taranaki and encompass 22 councils.
Under the proposal, each council's water, wastewater and stormwater assets could be transferred to the new entity. In Taupō, the council would receive $19.7 million. The new entity would also take on the council's $93 million of debt associated with those assets.
There will be new water standards to meet and a new regulator, Taumata Arowai, to enforce them. Water infrastructure would remain publicly owned and the entities would be governed by a regional representative group, equally split between local authority representatives and iwi representatives.
The water entities' large scale is expected to provide efficiencies, according to the reform proposal. Another benefit is that they would be able to raise debt to invest into core infrastructure to improve water.
The council was given eight weeks to consider the reform proposal and provide its feedback to central government.
The letter to be sent to Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta from the Taupō District Council begins by stating that the council agrees there is a need for water reform and it shares the Government's goals of ensuring every community in New Zealand receives clean, safe drinking water; and wastewater and stormwater are managed in an environmentally friendly manner.
However, it goes on to say there were several significant issues of community concern, including from iwi, that had not been adequately addressed and the council's review had led it to conclude that the Three Waters proposal as it currently stands, is not the right way forward for the Taupō District community.
There is another government project underway, Future for Local Government, which includes a review of services and activities being undertaken at various levels of government. In addition, there are other reviews such as the Resource Management Act review under way. The Taupō District Council letter says it is the council's "very strong position" that the Three Waters reform agenda needs to be put on hold immediately and included in the Future for Local Government project instead of being done separately.
"Respectfully, these are generational changes that should not be rushed or conducted in an illogical order. The Three Waters reform process should flow out of these other reviews/reforms."
The letter goes on to say that detailed information on the Three Waters reform was lacking and there was significant concern, both from the council and from the community, about losing local influence over its own water assets. There was also concern over accountability in the vast new water entity, with not enough community influence over decision-making. Lack of planning for the transition to a new system was another issue and iwi partners have also raised concerns over an erosion of Treaty obligations and local relationships.
Consultation, which should have been led by central government agencies but had not, was another issue. The scarcity of public information about the proposal meant the community was confused over the case for change and the speed of the reform.
"The current consultation void has spawned an active misinformation regime. Failing to consult correctly has already undermined the case for reform."
The council had not been given the option of full community consultation during the eight-week reform consideration phase, but had run a survey with 587 responses. Some 64 per cent of respondents thought it was extremely important that local government continue to be involved in three waters delivery and 44 per cent felt poorly informed or not informed at all.
The letter also slammed the Government's Three Waters advertising campaign as "factually incorrect, offensive and no way to treat partner organisations".
It said the new entities' size and scale would make local decision-making problematic or non-existent and the accountability measures were inadequate to protect community interests. It also said the Government had failed to properly consider the complex planning that would be needed to move on the reform model.
"The dislocation and remote nature of decision-making inherent in the model is unacceptable."
Once all the 67 councils around the country have provided their Three Waters feedback, that will be considered by the Department of Internal Affairs, which will present a final model to Cabinet by the end of October.
From there, the reforms may continue as proposed, with the possibility of being made mandatory; stopped or paused; or the Government may come up with a revised proposal, which would be sent back to councils for comment and feedback.
Key points of the Taupō District Council's response to Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta on the Government's Three Waters reform proposal
■ Three Waters reform needs to be integrated into other reforms under way in a logical, sequential order.
■ The council accepts and supports revised national standards for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater. It understands that these will result in increasing costs, which will have to be funded for its communities
■ Absolute need to consult with the community including mana whenua so that the community has a voice and active participation in decision-making
■ The proposed accountability measures need more work to ensure local communities do not suffer reduced outcomes, including for iwi.
■ The council is concerned that the complexity of the transition has been grossly underestimated, and has serious concerns that not all voices will be able to be heard, particularly those of iwi.
■ Immediate stop to the Three Waters programme requested.