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NANAIA MAHUTA AND THE THREE WATERS

There isn’t much doubt that something needs to be done about water, drainage and sewerage in New Zealand. Its provision across the country is a mess. But, frankly, I’m terrified at the clumsy way this government, the most incompetent in my long life, plans to deal with the three waters.


First, the problem. There is abundant evidence that local authorities have been ignoring the deteriorating state of water, drainage and sewerage infrastructure, and that we are starting to face enormous costs, and some disruption, as we come to grips with delayed maintenance. The endless problems in Wellington, Hastings and elsewhere where sewer pipes burst or water supplies suffered from campylobacter tell us that for too long councils have been spending money on visible things rather than maintaining old, and out-of-sight services. Moreover, there is a hodgepodge of ways in which these have been charged for around the country. As late as 1989, only a few councils in the country had meters for fresh water; most just included costs of water, drainage and sewerage in their general rates demand. Since ratepayers rarely saw how much they paid for water they had little interest in it, and no incentive to save it. Builders of new houses tapped into existing sewers, often overloading them until something akin to the recent Wellington crises required drastic remedial action. Councils have always struggled whenever they contemplate user-pays charging. Yet, it is the fairest way.


Now, to this government’s “solution”. Nanaia Mahuta wants to compel all 67 local councils in the country to centralise their three waters into four new water authorities, establishing, it seems, a new tier of governance. From the meagre specifics available, the water authorities would be under the thumb of central government and would take over all the assets, but few of the liabilities relating to water, drainage and sewerage. What role there would be for democratic input still isn’t clear. While ministers are talking of $2.5 billion of sweeteners to councils to win their cooperation, it is not apparent how maintaining or replacing the huge underground complex of ageing pipes and sewers, many in a much-degraded state, will be paid for over the decades ahead. One assumes that central government doesn’t intend to fund the needed infrastructure upgrade, and that the new water authorities will be given the power to levy users.


It's the way the reforms are being handled that astonishes me. I was the Minister of Local Government who pushed through amalgamations in 1989, reducing 817 local authorities, boards and special purpose entities to 86. It had taken 113 years to reach that point, and there’d been endless consultation. In the final stages I ensured there was plenty of printed detail on what was proposed, and I did my level best to involve councils, bureaucrats and constituents in the reform process. But I kept well clear of day-to-day decisions on the new entities, believing they should emerge from discussions and negotiations between all the affected local authorities and the Local Government Commission which was led by the able, highly-respected Sir Brian Elwood.


There is no sign of any similar consultative process under this government. Instead, the current clumsy Minister of Local Government is trying to bullock through a series of changes about which she clearly has slender understanding, and can’t have discussed much with officials or local government leaders. Had she studied the matter carefully, she would know that the boundaries of the 13 regions drawn in 1989 took careful account of water catchment areas. Since then the Waikato/Auckland boundary has been altered, but others are still operating, and with a little tinkering, the number of regional councils could be reduced to seven or eight. There is no need for a whole new tier of local government: re-jigged regional councils could almost certainly manage the three waters. However, the whole country would need to move on to a user-pays model if such a scheme is likely to last. Some people, of course, will want to pass the costs of improving local infrastructure to central government; a desire to socialize costs is an old Kiwi disease. But costs should fall where the infrastructure is needed most urgently. A few local authorities crow that they have paid off their water costs, but almost certainly they have been deficient in maintenance over the years, and their problems will bubble to the surface, sooner rather than later….


I see from a recent news article that the government is trying to assure local authority staff that their jobs won’t in any way be endangered by their three waters policies. To give those assurances at this stage is a guarantee that the government’s proposals will only inflate costs and push up charges. The big lesson of 1989 was that amalgamations and new systems can restrain costs only so long as the reformed entities are careful about staff levels and fair with redundancy when it is warranted.


My advice, for what it is worth, is that local authorities would be wise to give this government’s current three waters proposal a wide berth. Much more work needs to be done by bureaucrats and ministers scoping and identifying the magnitude of the current problem. Assessing the likely long-term costs of remedying the most urgent needs should follow, while negotiations continue about a sensible structure for the long-term handling of the three waters. And more thought is needed about the best way to assist those in charge at the local level who will have to finance and charge for the work that will need to be done to improve our failing infrastructure. A sudden ill-considered lurch into centralization is not the best answer.


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127 Comments


zespritz
zespritz
Jul 26, 2021

Anarchist history below is quite correct that the motivation behind this push for water amalgamation is NOT the well-being of its Citizens, nor its Commons Owner Citizens, nor the efficient management and ecological management of the resource, rather it is the ungodly financial requirement to control the newly imposed taxation base over this commons resource, to raise the taxation levy as the Govt might require (without local resistance), to offer the Water Resource, the common owned Resource by, slight of hand transfer as a collateral as the loan guarantor. What this means in RISK TERMS to the Commons owners is, if the profligate spending of the Govt exceeds the Govt ability to repay based on a diminished economy (foregone conclusio…

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Steve Shepherd
Steve Shepherd
Sep 17, 2021
Replying to

bbh, Capitalism is NOT like Socialism AT ALL. I can't believe your ignorance... Everything you have in your house and in your life has come from the benefits of capitalism. Even the computer or phone you use to type your words has come from capitalism. Socialism is a MULTI FAILED approach to human governance and control over many centruies... it tries to give everyone equal outcome which is a despicalbe doctrine where eventually all human reaction becomes controlled. Captialism isnt a governing mechanism either, its a method of improving the wellbeing of the human race that rewards those who put in the effort and take the risks.

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Imagine Jacinda's position: the Waitangi Tribunal says Maori should be given control of the water (and back-paid royalties), He Puapua says Maori should have control of our water (inter alia) and receive compensation for its use, and Jacinda, in her desperate socialist need to redistribute resources to groups she believes are less well off, WANTS to give Maori the water and to compensate them. But her armada of spin doctors and PR consultants have had to inform her of the reality that nobody owns the rain, and if she tries to give it away kiwis will probably take to the streets. If you look at the three waters proposals through that lens (or, should I say, "worldview") it all starts…

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davidwharwood176
davidwharwood176
Sep 17, 2021
Replying to

whackka you are right on the money No one can own water that comes from the sky ,The rite to draw water from under your own land must remain .Our council would love to be able to send the massive bill for controlling water in my province to maori Quite simply if they want to own water they in law will be responsible for the damage it causes too Plus all the sewerage schemes in the country .It simply is a nonsense We are now paying the price for bringing up the last few generations in ignorance of practical science and all about theoretical science .This rubbish dreamed up by the current crop of maori dreamers in parliament will simply…

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Napoleon Busch
Napoleon Busch
Jul 25, 2021

Living under socialism?. Just as safe as spray-on Asbestos. Relax


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jhkcava
jhkcava
Jul 25, 2021

If we are to be a united and successful country then we have to stop all this separatism in local bodies that is taking place at the moment. We all came here as settlers, no one living in NZ today is an indigenous person. Maori and all other settlers left their ancestral grounds to come to New Zealand looking for a better life. We must not destroy this now by creating racial separatism which always causes strife and frustration. We are all New Zealanders, we must all pull together as one nation to make this a strong, successful and wonderful country.

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davidwharwood176
davidwharwood176
Jul 28, 2021
Replying to

You live here you are a nzer end of story Black brindle or white .cant blame maori for seeing a few easy bucks It might just be like Helen thinking this country would get a cheque from other countries instead of the bill we are supposedly getting Maori should be careful this might be the same if they have to pay for the sewerage disposal and storm and floodwater ,the bill might be bigger than the cheque ????

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Dr Bassett, do you know what is the Government’s rationale for basing the 4 water entities on iwi boundaries rather than groups of local authorities? And as a consequence, what does that mean for the governance of the 4 entities, what will iwi’s role in selecting the boards of these entities?

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Replying to

Good question Christine and I like thousands of other Kiwis would like to understand this also

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