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Pause on Three Waters reforms suggests Government may be spooked by public backlash

OPINION: In a curious twist to round out Parliament’s pre-Christmas legislative rush, the Government has pressed pause on introducing the legislation to give life to its Three Waters reforms.

When Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta confirmed in October the Government’s intentions to forcibly strip the water infrastructure and services from 67 councils and create four mega-regional water entities, the enabling legislation was scheduled to be introduced prior to Christmas.

But on Thursday under questioning, Leader of the House Chris Hipkins impishly confirmed that the legislation would be delayed.

In a major change in tune, the Government has decided it will now wait until its working group has completed its deliberations before the bill is introduced in the House.

READ MORE:
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* Government pushes ahead with Three Waters reform, will take water services from councils

Has the Government been spooked by the public fallout and pending legal action?

Initially the plan was to insert any findings from the working group as an amendment to the bill via a supplementary order paper.

An exposure draft of the bill will be given to the working group to inform its work this week. The new timetable now requires the working group to report back by February 28, allowing the legislation to be introduced by the end of March.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta is spearheading a push for three waters reform, but has come against the collective will of New Zealand’s councils.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta is spearheading a push for three waters reform, but has come against the collective will of New Zealand’s councils.

In a clear concession that the Government has become gravely sensitive to the public disquiet circling these reforms, the working group is now expected to “fully take into account the feedback from the eight-week engagement period”(with councils), says the minister.

It’s a great pity that the Government didn’t bother to stop and consider the feedback before declaring what increasingly looks like a pre-determined decision to mandate the takeover of council assets for its wildly unpopular four-entity model.

After all, the merger model was originally spruiked as being voluntary. To date, the entire engagement period has been contemptuously treated as a box-ticking sham.

During that process, 60 of the 67 councils signalled their intention to opt out of the reforms or expressed their grave opposition to the key proposals.

But if the Government had hoped that deferring the enabling legislation until next year would calm the farm and allow the hostility to these reforms to fade from view, it is badly mistaken.

On Wednesday a major campaign taking aim at the Three Waters reforms will be launched at Parliament.

Waimakariri mayor Dan Gordon says alternative models could provide a better solution to the country’s water woes.

Joseph Johnson/Stuff

Waimakariri mayor Dan Gordon says alternative models could provide a better solution to the country’s water woes.

More than 20 councils, including Christchurch, have already signed up to the “push-back” grouping of local authorities that is determined to consign the four-entity model to history.

Waimakariri Mayor Dan Gordon is deputy chairman of the grouping, saying that “Our focus is on achieving better policy outcomes. We will demonstrate there are alternative models.”

Industry experts are being engaged to put the flesh on the bones of their alternative models.

This grouping of councils does not oppose the establishment of the new water standards regulator, Taumata Arowai.

But the Government’s disregard for community property rights in those infrastructure assets has understandably riled them.

Gutting council balance sheets by confiscating their assets and forcing city ratepayers to subsidise provincial ratepayers was always going to be a sure-fire recipe for revolt.

The murky, multi-layered byzantine governance and operational structure for the four regional entities looms like a totem to unaccountable inefficiency.

So will the Government’s working group effect sweeping change to the reforms, or will they be short-leashed to merely fiddle around the edges?

Mike Yardley: “To date, the entire engagement period has been contemptuously treated as a box-ticking sham.”

Stuff

Mike Yardley: “To date, the entire engagement period has been contemptuously treated as a box-ticking sham.”

On Friday, Hawke’s Bay mayors met with the working group to present their alternative regional water model.

Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst has “high hopes that our model will receive the serious consideration it deserves”.

Under the Government’s proposed model, Hastings would be enmeshed in a farflung entity stretching from Gisborne to Blenheim, including the Chatham Islands.

Even more fatuously, Marlborough would be severed into two separate regional water entities. As so many councils have demonstrated, the Beehive’s reform programme has been undermined by faulty costings, flawed analysis and exaggerated benefits.

Regional collaboration is a no-brainer to help drive efficiencies.

But rather than confiscating and centralising council assets, directly co-funding water infrastructure projects, as the Government does for road funding, particularly for councils with low ratepayer bases, is a credible alternative.

As is the call for the Government to guarantee the debt of those smaller councils, with minimal headroom for further lending.



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