Local Government is about to undergo the biggest transformation in thirty years since the Elwood amalgamations of 1989.
The changes will involve major reform in current core areas of service including potable (drinking) water, stormwater, and wastewater (sewage). Collectively these are referred to as the three waters; the latter two being services that local governments are legally required to provide.
Central government has recognised that some local governments have been struggling to provide adequate service in the delivery of these by meeting safe standards, achieving levels of service (performance), or being compliant.
The failure of Hastings District Council to deliver safe drinking water to Havelock North in 2016 where four people died spurred government to call for nationwide reform of our water services. On a percentage basis if this had happened nationwide 1600 would have died (Covid, as I write, has taken 22 lives nationally). Central government had no choice but to act.
It is proposed to draw our 3 waters activities into a few amalgamated regions nationwide. The number, structure, ownership, management, and governance details of these entities have yet to be worked out. It seems likely that our asset ownership will remain with our local councils in some form.
This process will progress through three stages the first of which will see considerable progress made on how this might eventually look.
We may opt in, or out, at any stage but must decide immediately if we wish to be in the first tranche of discussions. The carrot being offered is basically a 'no strings attached' grant to each authority to spend on water upgrade projects. Our use of this grant will have to meet some minor eligibility criteria.
Whanganui will receive $3.1 million to be matched by the same quantum if we join and the mayors of our Horizons Region agree to allocate this augmentation on a population and area basis. We must agree to share information and cooperate to determine what the final 3 waters delivery model will encompass.
If we do not opt in, we will forgo the grants offered. It seems a no-brainer to embrace this. By August 19, council will have made its decision on the Memorandum of Understanding required.
From this initial commitment onward, however, more soul searching will be required of our council. The devil in the detail of how the model shapes up will influence our decision to remain. Some of my concerns follow.
Whanganui's 3 waters assets are large, worth over $600 million. The annual rates taken to operate these services exceed $21.5 million. What will the final ownership of the model look like? How will these operations be funded? What local input will we retain in determining our levels of service? Will we wind up subsidising the inefficiencies and compliance failures of other local authorities?
Of our 3 waters, wastewater is in good shape with a compliant new treatment plant; our potable water is among the safest to drink in the country; our stormwater system fails to meet its desired level of service.
However, central government appears reluctant to place stormwater at the forefront of their recent concerns in promoting these reforms.
Indeed, coping with stormwater system shortfalls has been acknowledged as an Achilles heel in the limited discussions I have been party to.
In a general sense, will we be giving away our assets and/or control of them? We saw this happen to our local Rural Fire Services recently as our equipment was confiscated without compensation by the previous government. In my opinion aspects of our previous service have declined.
New Zealand is already one of the most centrally controlled Western economies. The current government appears driven to increase central control (note: education and health).
I subscribe to the belief that the best decisions are made locally, by local people. The prospect of removing our decision-making over our 3 waters is concerning. If we lose a significant part of that, councils will have seen much of their most essential responsibility disappear.
One potential upside that I have not seen explored is that this move allows central government to address the future funding of local government activities.
The unsustainability of continued rates funding was a core finding of the Productivity Commission last year. Should a bold government agree to fund the 3 waters activities (or a large part of them), thus reducing the current rates burden required, I would feel more encouraged about supporting this whole idea.
•Alan Taylor is Chair of the Infrastructure, Climate Change, Emergency Management Committee on the Whanganui District Council