Published date10 September 2022
Publication titleMix, The
‘‘To be frank, that’s exactly what they experienced when commissioners were appointed in Tauranga,’’ the voice on the phone says

‘‘Decades of deferred investment’’ resulted in rates going up by ‘‘enormous amounts, eye-watering amounts, really’’.

‘‘What tends to happen is ... councillors are elected on a promise to keep rates low. They do a reasonable job of that — by deferring the needed investment.’’

So, they get elected and re-elected, Voice A says.

But, by the third term, chickens can be heard in the roost.

‘‘Then they stand on ‘Vote for me because I’m going to fix this problem’ — which they created, but no-one’s the wiser.

‘‘And then they say ‘Well, sorry, the only way we’re going to be able to fix this is to put up the rates an enormous amount’.

‘‘That’s been the decision-making process in many parts of the country. That’s how they got to this state.’’

These are not the words one normally hears uttered by city council bosses, high profile politicians, top-ranked civil servants. Not out loud. Not unless you move in those circles, are privy to those unguarded conversations.

But they are the conversations being had, so The Weekend Mix is told, whenever New Zealand’s drinking, waste and storm water — its Three Waters — infrastructure is discussed behind those closed doors.

Three waters — the more than $70 billion worth of reservoirs, pipes, ponds and treatment plants that deliver drinking water, channel storm water and remove waste water — is one of the country’s most significant infrastructure sectors. Most of 339 water treatment plants, 42,559km of water supply pipes, 1030 pump stations, 18,452km of stormwater network and 327 wastewater treatment plants are owned and operated by Aotearoa’s 67 local authorities. Almost 5000 people are employed to support the delivery of these services to 4.3 million people.

And all of it is in the middle of a massive shake-up.

In response to the 2016, Havelock North campylobacter contamination that infected 8000 people, killed at least four and left others permanently disabled, the Government took an urgent and hard look at water services in New Zealand.

Now a new national body, Taumata Arowai, has been set up to regulate drinking water. It will also oversee the environmental performance of waste and stormwater networks.

To enable that and other changes, the Water Services Bill was passed into law last October.

It is not to be confused with the Water Services Entities Bill, now in the parliamentary pipeline. This Bill will establish four publicly-owned, geographically-defined, entities that will take over the ownership and operation of the local authorities’ three waters infrastructure. Entity D will cover all of the South Island, except Tasman, Nelson and Marlborough.

Three Waters will be managed using a co-governance model. Representatives of local government councils and mana whenua will jointly appoint regional representative groups to manage the entities’ strategies. These groups will also appoint independent selection panels that will appoint the boards to manage and run each entity.

The aim of it all, Local Government minister Nanaia Mahuta says, is to use economies of scale to allow the extensive and ageing water infrastructure to be affordably managed and upgraded, giving New Zealanders improved three waters service delivery, including cleaner, safer, more reliable, drinking water.

However, since the moment the $761 million, Three Waters reform was announced more than two years ago, it has been embroiled in fierce debate, polarising controversy and apparent policy flip-flops.

Some councils opted out of the whole plan. Most councils expressed concerns, particularly about ownership and governance.

The Government offered councils a $2.5 billion sweetener to opt in, but also added it might force councils to toe the line.

In October, last year, the Minister set up an independent working party to review the whole plan.

Six months later, Mahuta and Infrastructure Minister...

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