Wellington mayor on the fence about water reform: ‘We can get on top of this ourselves’

Wellington mayor Andy Foster is yet to take a stance on the Government’s three waters reform plan, but says his council can probably get on top of issues without change.

Many councils around the country remain unconvinced by the Government’s proposal to move the ownership and management of water infrastructure from local councils and into the hands of four water services agencies, split regionally.

Stormwater, wastewater, and drinking water are currently managed by 67 territorial authorities, Watercare in Auckland, and Wellington Water.

Wellington has already experienced high-profile failures in its network such as when 6.5 million litres of wastewater spewed into Wellington’s harbour after a critical wastewater tunnel collapsed under the CBD.

Foster told the Herald the council already knows it needs to step up.

“We are stepping up. We’re kind of doing what we’re supposed to do so we will probably get on top of this ourselves without change.

“The question is what does it mean for other parts of the country.”

The council has recently agreed to spend $2.7 billion over the next 10 years on the city’s Three Waters network.

Business as usual capital expenditure for Wellington’s pipes has increased by a third compared to what was in council’s previous Long-Term Plan.

Foster said he was supportive overall of the need to make change, but he was still digesting the Government’s plans and already has some concerns.

He is sceptical about scale efficiency savings calculations.

At the moment average annual household water bill costs for Wellington City are $950.

Number crunching behind the case for reform estimates this could be as much as $2440 in today’s dollars by 2050 without reform.

With reform it could be just $1,260.

“I still haven’t got my head around why there is that massive difference between a reform and a non-reform proposition”, Foster said.

“You’ve still got to dig up pipes and replace pipes and things like that.”

He said another key issue would be making sure each individual community got the services it wanted at the right time.

“Where you’ve only got three or four houses on a system together, should they be upgraded to an A-grade system or what they’ve always had? The question there is what does that cost and it could be a massive cost.”

Foster said he canvassed his councillors a couple of months ago on reform and the key piece of feedback he received was about ensuring some level of local control in the new entities.

He anticipated this would be a point of contention going forward.

“The model which is proposed has no local control at all. It basically says we are owners in name only.”

Meanwhile, Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel is finding it difficult to see a compelling case for change and Auckland mayor Phil Goff is refusing to buy into the reforms, which Foster said he was not surprised by.

Goff has said ratepayers have invested billions in Watercare, which is already achieving the scale and professionalism in water supply the Government is seeking for the country through reform.

He is concerned Auckland Council could have less than 40 per cent representation in the governance of a new entity, despite 92 per cent of the entity’s assets being from Auckland.

“If Auckland pulled out, that would be a very challenging thing for the Government”, Foster said.

The reforms have been described as an opt-in or opt-out for councils.

But Mahuta currently won’t rule out forcing councils into it, although she hopes they will voluntarily come to the table.

How reform would work:

The four agencies would cover different regions.

The first would cover Auckland and Northland – a population of 1.725 million people – most in Auckland.

The second would cover Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, and northern Manawatū-Whanganui – a population of 800,000.

The third would cover eastern and southern parts of the North Island and the top of the South Island, including Hawke’s Bay, Horowhenua, Wellington, Nelson and Marlborough – a population of 955,000.

The fourth would cover the rest of the South Island.

The agencies will be publicly owned, with local authorities considered the “owners” on behalf of their communities. Steps would be taken to try to ensure the assets could not be privatised in the future, such as requiring a referendum before any such move.

A Regional Representative Group of local authority members and tangata whenua would vote on an independent panel to appoint the board members to govern each entity.

They would be required to consult communities before making decisions.

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