Nixon: Three Waters reforms must be led by locals

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Three Waters reforms and resource management changes will shape 2021 as the start of “the most transformative change for decades” for local government, Masterton councillor Tina Nixon says.

Masterton councillor Tina Nixon is interviewed by TVNZ reporter Whena Owen.

Masterton councillor Tina Nixon is interviewed by TVNZ reporter Whena Owen. Photo: LDR / Wairarapa Times-Age / Karen Coltman

A briefing paper to minister for local government Nanaia Mahuta before Christmas called for wide-ranging changes to the council sector.

“Roles and responsibilities of councils have and will continue to change, governance requirements need to be updated,” the report, penned by Department of Internal Affairs staffers, said.

The paper landed as Nixon told the Wairarapa Times-Age that she expected the national waterworks review to change the face of local governance.

The Three Waters review came alongside a raft of environmental measures on water management.

It was followed by the Randerson report into the resource management system. The incoming Labour government pledged to act to its recommendations.

The water reforms were considered at Cabinet level earlier this month.

In a report, Progressing the Three Waters Service Delivery Reforms, Mahuta said she recommended a “centrally-led process” to create a “small number of large-scale water service entities”.

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Minister for local government Nanaia Mahuta. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Councils would be asked to decide to participate in the new service delivery system in late 2021, the report said.

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Wairarapa local councils each received a stimulus package from central government this year, seen by some as an enticement to sign up.

Masterton District Council took up the offer of a $4.4 million deal, Carterton’s council $1.84m, and South Wairarapa District, $2.84m.

The money is set aside for new water projects, which must be underway by March 2022.

How it will work

A national water authority, Taumata Arowai, will compose and manage new standards, with asset management expected to change hands.

The government is likely to encourage day-to-day management to move away from local control, to a regional approach.

Masterton and Carterton District Councils are responsible for their own assets. South Wairarapa District Council uses the Wellington Water conglomerate for projects and maintenance.

Both models may be superseded by new bodies, with the country carved up to make a small number of water companies.

There are 490 water suppliers in New Zealand, with 70 percent of the population served by councils or other large entities.

More than 70 percent of residents have access to reticulated water and wastewater services.

Government is happy to impose change at a local level but rarely funds those changes so councils are continually trying to deliver the same or better services while implementing costly and unfunded government policy on top of day-to-day activities.

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That means councils struggle to deliver to community expectations.

Local responsibility

Nixon said it was clear councils’ biggest priority now is water.

“Looking after the water we have, harvesting it responsibly and ensuring we have enough for future generations.

“But by bringing in changes around how water is managed, the government has set off a cascade of change which will see the local government of the future look very different from how it looks and operates today.”

She said she saw Three Waters reform give responsibility for managing the waters rest with a regional organisation.

“That could see the Wairarapa lumped in with Wellington or even the whole of the lower North Island.

“Taking local council responsibility for Three Waters delivery away will gut councils but may provide some more consistency around standards and possibly cost savings.”

“Both these sets of reforms cannot be enacted unless there are structural changes to local government and central government has made it clear the water and RMA reforms are a big priority.

“So, it’s a case of when – not if.”

“Frankly after 15 months in the job as a councillor, I am more convinced than ever that changes are needed to how local government operates and support the move to reform councils. And yes, that means some form of reorganising of the four Wairarapa councils.

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“However, my desire is for our communities to be the architects of reform – not some shiny bum in Wellington.

She said she feared that local people needed to “take control of what our future should look like”, otherwise “we will suffer at the hands of overpaid consultants and central government policy wonks”.

“Otherwise that change won’t be designed by us, the people of a distinctly rural province, but by a team of overpaid, smashed-avocado-chomping consultants who live in Thorndon.”

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Local Democracy Reporting

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