While there’s a clear case for change in our Three Waters sector, the Government’s plan isn’t compelling, and the model of four regional entities comes with several serious problems.
We recognise and understand the need for change. But the proposed solution will end up with more problems than solutions. The benefits of scale are not convincing. Water services are not like the power grid – they are individual assets that are distanced and difficult to network. Yet the whole premise of four water entities assumes significant scale benefits.
The result will be large service organisations that won’t work together or create any savings. The last thing New Zealanders need is more bloated bureaucracies.
We’re yet to see a thorough implementation plan. How will the water assets of communities like Kaikōura and Bluff, some 800km apart, be practically networked and merged into one entity?
Crucially, ratepayers face losing local control of the assets they’ve paid for over generations, while being asked to foot the bill for poorer-performing neighbours – all while getting no guarantee that the service will materially improve. It’s theft, without compensation or even an explanation.
We deserve a cogent and convincing argument as to why this is necessary and how it will be implemented in a way that’s fair to ratepayers.
Sadly, though, Government’s relationship with councils is going down the toilet.
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s officials have been busy eroding any goodwill from councils, running negative ads claiming councils are doing a bad job managing Three Waters and refusing their requests for information. Mayors and councils say they are feeling dumped on and undermined.
Council confidence is falling. Whangārei District Council has been the first to pull out before the programme has even got off the ground. The mayors of Auckland, Christchurch and Napier are making the same sounds.
The reforms were designed to be voluntary for councils but if more continue to opt-out, there is a very real risk the Minister will make participation compulsory and force councils to surrender their water assets.
National supports a water regulator with greater power to set and enforce standards. But we believe we should be enhancing Three Waters capability and incentivising change where it is led locally and able to happen organically – not mandated from Ivory Tower bureaucrats in Wellington.
These reforms are showing the same ‘we know best’ attitude and amalgamation agenda that we’ve seen from the Labour Government in vocational education and DHBs. Change must be led by councils and communities.
Judith Collins is the MP for Papakura, and the leader of the National Party.