As an increasing number of district and regional councils rally against the controversial Three Waters reform, a frustrated mayor has told the Prime Minister her Government has "lost the people" over the proposed water restructures.
And the mayor of another Hawke's Bay council has doubled down on his earlier criticism of the way the process has been handled, labelling it as "appalling".
Cabinet is currently considering 47 recommendations made by an independent working group – made up of 20 local government and iwi representatives - over the Government's proposed water reforms.
Under the plan – which will affect all of New Zealand's district and regional councils – control of New Zealand's drinking, storm and waste water systems could be transferred from councils to four regional bodies.
The proposal has led to the creation of an opposition group, Communities 4 Local Democracy, which features 31 district and city councils. Large "Stop Three Waters" billboards have also been erected by farmers on their land throughout heartland New Zealand.
Councils who have joined the group include the Central Hawke's Bay District Council (CHBDC), whose mayor Alex Walker wrote to Ardern late last year "with sadness" over the reform programme.
In the letter – which along with other internal Three Waters reform discussion documents has been released by the council – she wrote that the Central Hawke's Bay community were "some of the most informed in the country when it comes to regulatory and financial challenges of providing Three Waters infrastructure".
She said the CHBDC had been "leading a strategy called #thebigwasterstory" since 2017 and had tripled capital investment in the area during that time.
It had also executed a further strategy called Facing the Facts that had seen council in consultation with the community and "adopt the largest capital investment programme in our wastewater treatment system that this community has ever seen".
The CHBDC had also worked with neighbouring councils on a range of water initiatives.
But Walker wrote to Ardern: "But despite this Prime Minister, I am sad to say that you have lost the people on your path of Three Waters Reforms.
"Even in my community, which understand the challenges implicitly, they are affronted by the change in property rights, and the scale of the change proposed. They cannot see how their interests will be protected and who will advocate for them."
Walker also told Ardern that elected CHBDC representatives remained "unconvinced" the reforms would provide "improvements across all facets of community wellbeing".
On October 27, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said that the Three Waters reform process would become mandatory for all councils.
A CHBDC extraordinary council meeting agenda document said the Government had "previously promised" that as part of a signed Memorandum of Understanding councils would have the option to join or opt out of the process.
"The minister's announcement has left many mayors and councils extremely disappointed, and many members of the community have also expressed their dissatisfaction," the document stated.
"Mayors of a several number of councils met informally to canvass ideas about what they do to resist the proposal."
It added: "Most councils agree that quality drinking water and better environmental outcomes are essential, but some have a genuine difference of opinion with the current Government on the structural solution.
"For these reasons, those councils that disagree with the Government and would like the ability to come together collectively to oppose the Government on behalf of their communities."
In a letter to Mahuta co-signed by Walker and CHBDC chief executive Monique Davidson, the pair wrote that after an eight-week assessment of Three Waters they were of the view the reforms were "polarising and have triggered a range of emotions across our community".
"It is therefore Council's view that the Government must adequately consult across the New Zealand public before the package of reforms is progressed through a select committee process."
The pair wrote the Government had provided "insufficient information" on how the reform process would work and said the proposals were also "too important" not to allow ratepayers to have their say.
They also raised a "concern" that "the financial complexity of the proposed reforms packages has not been fully understood or communicated by Government".
Another mayor within the greater Hawke's Bay region, Craig Little from the Wairoa District Council, has also increased his opposition to Three Waters, describing it as a "shocker".
Little told the Herald among things he and his community were opposed to was the forced handing over of assets and infrastructure it had paid for.
He also believed the size of the clean water problem as stated by Three Waters backers was "grossly over-exaggerated".
"The whole process is wrong," Little said.
"They are just rail-roading us. Something that we are not allowed to do is pre-determination. But they have done that [with Three Waters] right from day one. It is not the way forward.
"It has been an appalling process."
The Wairoa District Council is a member of Communities 4 Local Democracy.
Little also criticised what he believed was a poor level of communications over the reforms.
He was still waiting for answers to questions he had submitted to Mahuta last year.
He also labelled TV advertising promoting the reforms as "a joke", adding "if we did that we would be run out of town".
Almost 50 complaints have been laid with the Advertising Standards Authority over the advertisements.
Mahuta has acknowledged the execution of TV campaign had been wrong. The adverts – which cost $3.5 million – pointed the blame for a range of water failures firmly at councils.
"There was a high level of sensitivity from local government around that campaign because they felt that they were getting blamed for something and I acknowledge that decades of underinvestment in water infrastructure is within the council purview but perhaps the advertising campaign wasn't the best way to tell the message," she told Q&A.
Among the recommendations made by the Three Waters independent working group was the need for a new communications campaign based on the "need for change".
It also called for a Water Ombudsman to be appointed to oversee Water Service Entities' interactions with water users.
A public shareholding structure to maintain public ownership of water assets has also been recommended.
Mahuta said Cabinet would now "carefully consider" the recommendations.
"We know it is important to get this reform right for every New Zealander," she said.
"We are committed to ensuring local councils continue to have a vital Three Waters role by representing the interests of their communities at the highest level of each new water services entity alongside mana whenua, and by owning these entities on behalf of their communities.
"The process going forward is designed to make sure the wealth of Three Waters expertise and local knowledge built up by local government transfers over to the new entities and that these new water services providers are accountable and responsive to local communities."