Water: something must change

Last month I was asked by Local Government New Zealand to speak with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and others about the issue of three waters reform. Since then, I have addressed a number of Mayors, Councillors and senior staff from other councils about why I think we must change the way water and waste-water services are provided in New Zealand. 

I want to share some of these thoughts. But firstly, some background…

Over the past three years, central and local government have been considering better, more efficient and more cost-effective ways to deliver three waters (fresh water, wastewater, stormwater) services.
New legislation has been developed and Taumata Arowai, a new Water Services Regulator, has been established to oversee and enforce new drinking water regulations plus overview wastewater and stormwater networks.

But most people acknowledge there are far broader challenges than just regulatory issues in the waters sector. It is very clear there has been under-investment in three waters infrastructure in many parts of the country.  Alongside that underinvestment, the harsh reality is that, in some parts of New Zealand, communities simply cannot afford to pay for critical work that needs to done.

In July 2020, the Government announced $761 million to help Councils – including Hamilton City Council – maintain and improve three waters infrastructure, and to support the water services reform.

The Government wants publicly-owned multi-regional models for water service delivery so there are benefits of scale. That means Councils will work together to deliver services instead of trying to do everything themselves.  This seems sensible to me, particularly for smaller councils which struggle to retain expert staff and must provide services to the same standards – but with far fewer ratepayers to help fund them.

A  joint Three Waters Steering Committee has now been formed to provide guidance on next steps.  At a workshop in Hamilton last month, the Committee assured me and other Mayors that final decisions on service delivery models will be informed by discussions with the local government sector, iwi and other interested parties. 

I will be holding the Committee to that promise.

Hamilton was a good place to hold the workshop, alongside colleagues from Waipa and Waikato District Councils. Many people will be well aware of the complex and at times fraught journey that Hamilton City, Waipa and Waikato District Councils took when those Councils considered how they might reform their own water and wastewater services.  I was not Mayor then (discussions traversed both Mayor Hardaker and Mayor King’s terms), but I was an HCC Councillor for part of that process.

Eventually, those efforts came unstuck at the hands of politicians. I was sorry about that.  As a Hamilton City Councillor I supported the proposal to form a non-asset owning CCO.  I thought then – and I think now – that we have an absolute obligation to deliver water services in the most efficient and cost-effective way.

Personally, I think reform is overdue. Growth pressures, environmental pressures, higher public health standards and increased expectations from Iwi are raising the bar.   The prevailing model of each Council running their own waters systems – with limited resources and limited expertise – is outdated, non-tenable and in some cases, dangerous.  We saw that in Havelock North.  Anybody who tries to argue otherwise will not be judged well in the history books.

I think there is a compelling case for change.  The non-financial benefits….meeting higher environmental standards, retaining good staff…. are clear.  And the financial benefits of scale and increased borrowing capacity are also obvious.

But we need to take heed of lessons we have already learned. Fundamental change takes time.  It will require Iwi to be at the table.  And to make the reforms successful, it will take Councillors to be brave.

My Council hasn’t yet had a chance to discuss the proposed reforms in detail.  We will be doing that on August 20 when we decide whether or not to participate in discussions with the government.  The decision on August 20 is non-binding and I am confident we will agree to the next step.

Hamilton will also be looking to work with like-minded Councils.  I will want discussions with other metros like Tauranga and Rotorua as well.  But I would welcome the involvement of all Councils in discussions.  I have always said – and will continue to say – that partnerships are what make us strong. So I will be continuing to urge all local Councils to approach this opportunity in that way.  We need to work together to get the best outcomes for our communities; working alone will achieve nothing.  

I know the discussions ahead will be testing. Reform is never easy. But I believe Hamilton will want to move forward on this issue and support the government’s reform efforts.

Each Council will make its own decision about whether or not it wants to be part of this reform programme.  For me, it is a reasonably easy one. At Hamilton City Council, our whole reason for being is to improve the wellbeing of Hamiltonians.  This reform programme has the ability to do that – and more.  Done right, it has the potential to improve the wellbeing of New Zealanders.  


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