Central government's hasty intention to reform the delivery of water services seriously threatens New Zealand's local democracy, writes Whanganui district councillor Alan Taylor.
Councils in New Zealand have been struggling with installing and maintaining satisfactory drinking water, wastewater and stormwater services and have failed to adequately invest in these.
Waikouaiti's recent lead contamination and the Havelock North 2016 campylobacter poisonings have Central Government focused on water infrastructure problems encouraging this headstrong drive for reform.
Presented as a problem of capacity, expertise, operational inadequacy and small scale, it is really none of these.
Local government is well-resourced with the knowledge and intellectual capability necessary to provide robust and resilient water services. Indeed, any reform would rely on these human resources. Boiled down, the problem is one of funding.
The Minister for Local Government Nanaia Mahuta sees operational reform of water delivery services as the answer; the only answer. It is not.
Under the Minister's instruction, the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) is attempting to effect reform by restructuring water services. Such reform would "probably" see the assets and liabilities of our water services passed over to three or four, yet to be structurally defined, water entities.
Policy is being made on the hoof. The Government has made startlingly wide estimates of underinvestment. It has limited understanding of the problems it is trying to solve.
Measurable outcomes are mostly non-existent or vague. In short, the whole exercise lacks clear strategy.
Two hard-hitting tacks are taken at every opportunity by the Minister and DIA in support of their position, the effect of which will be the removal of local control.
Firstly, we are threatened with concern about the Havelock North failure and newly legislated drinking water standards which "you will all have to adhere to anyway".
Well, since that is already enforceable, so what?
Secondly, having collated vast data on the state of our water infrastructure we are informed of levels of underinvestment which are too large for existing local authorities to rectify.
Notwithstanding the data supplied to DIA, the state of our water services remains poorly understood. This is not a place from which good decisions emanate.
Cabinet wants to push the legislative "go" button late this year. The timeframe is ill-considered.
Listening to Mahuta on RNZ did nothing to alleviate one's concern. The Minister again began with the Havelock North incident then, following form, threw in widespread past investment failure.
Initially strong on her advocacy for improvement, she, in my opinion, became increasingly evasive in her answers as more detail was sought.
As with regional workshops I have attended on this, outcomes became more uncertain and confused.
It was telling that, given the impending deadline, the Minister referred 16 times to "conversations" (current and future) and without detail. No governance or operational delivery model is anywhere near finalised.
Water is a taonga yet, in my opinion, there continues to be a level of arrogance demonstrated toward iwi engagement that does not sit well.
The Three Waters Reform Steering Group and DIA officials either stare blankly or obfuscate when challenged by iwi. Officials may be beginning to understand the magnitude and difficulty of completing this task within the Minister's deadline.
Where, too, I ask are the outcomes with respect to acceptable discharges into the receiving environments of stormwater and wastewater. Will these standards remain with current authorities, who will be consulted, and when?
Whatever the Government promises in water reform, one thing is clear. Water users will continue to pay on a local basis. There is no intention that the underfunding in infrastructure will be financially addressed by Central Government.
Claims that the reforms will free up local authority balance sheets are irrelevant. The indications are that water users will be billed by the new water entities through their constituent councils.
Water will be no cheaper and the same people will be paying the bills with less control since draft management structures are bereft of elected input.
There is little reason to believe that these entities will have the ability to borrow significantly cheaper than local authorities currently can through the Local Government Funding Agency.
There is nothing preventing the privatisation of water in the future save that the new delivery entities may be structured in a manner that discourages this.
That is a concern for all of us, especially iwi.
The stripping of territorial authorities of their water services is draconian because it removes such a large portion of what we as councils do.
Will our roads be next? Minister Mahuta essentially admitted to RNZ that we'd be left as community "placemakers" responsible for little more substantial than libraries and parks.
That is scary because New Zealand is already one of the most centrally governed countries in the Western World. We already boast six different Local Government administrative models from community boards to unitary authorities. Do we need yet another that would see our councils reduced to the level and effectiveness of urban community boards?
There is a better way. It is well encapsulated in the thinking of Waitomo District Mayor John Robertson who suggests a Crown "Three Waters" advisory and capital works funding agency where taxpayers (not regional water entity ratepayers) would be assisting councils in new water investments and upgrades.
This is a worthwhile concept devoid of the potential cross-subsidisation wars likely to prevail as well-endowed councils front up to the bill for improving the services of councils that have procrastinated in providing satisfactory water delivery.
Local decisions are best made by local people.
That is fundamentally enshrined in the principles of localism, a cornerstone of democracy.
We must not let Central Government and the Wellington DIA bureaucracy lobotomise local government.