Thursday, June 13, 2024

Three Waters a big worry

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The Government is proposing to reform New Zealand’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater services.

I recently travelled to Blenheim for the Local Government New Zealand conference in my role as National’s Local Government spokesperson.

The annual conference is one of the bigger fixtures on the calendar for our local government sector and I joined mayors, council chief executives and officials attending from across New Zealand.

This year’s big topic was the Government’s proposed reforms to Three Waters – drinking water, wastewater and stormwater – which would see those services removed from delivery by councils and handed to four regional water entities.

It’s widely agreed that there is a case for change. Our ailing water infrastructure needs significant investment. Discharges and overflows pollute our environment and breaches of safety standards put public health at risk.

We saw this with the 2016 gastroenteritis outbreak in Havelock North. The contamination of the town’s water supply caused thousands to fall ill and contributed to the tragic deaths of up to four people.

Positive steps have been taken since then, including the formation of a new water regulator, Taumata Arowai – we’ve never had a body dedicated to enforcing drinking water standards and it will be a game-changer.

But the model of four water entities comes with several issues that need to be addressed – which is why many councils are still on the fence, including Auckland. Whangārei have opted out of the reforms, which already throws the future of the northern water entity into doubt.

The purported scale benefits are unclear; where is the benefit in an entity that would merge water assets in Gisborne and Blenheim, on either side of the Cook Strait? National’s fear is the entities won’t deliver real savings and will instead become bloated bureaucracies.

The complex structure of the entities, with multiple governance and management layers, will erode local control and accountability rather than enhance it. Some communities with strong water management will be left cross-subsidising their poorer-performing neighbours.

So far the Government has tried a negative ad campaign and a $2.5 billion inducement to get councils on board. If those fail, their last resort will inevitably be forcing change on councils.

The Government is pursuing their pre-determined solution at any cost – whether that means scaring, bribing or forcing communities to the table. National will fight for communities to keep their say. We cannot afford to take the ‘local’ out of local government.

Last week our community came together to express our frustration at the unfathomable Eastern Busway delay, with 250 people attending a public meeting which I co-hosted with Pakuranga MP Simeon Brown. It was good to have senior Auckland Transport officials present, including CEO Shane Ellison.

The mood of the room certainly reflected the fact that east Aucklanders feel completely neglected by transport decision-makers. There was no mistaking the message: the Eastern Busway must be completed as soon as possible.

It’s incomprehensible that a $785 million cycle bridge that might carry 3000 people on a sunny day is being funded by the Labour Government and prioritised over a critical transport link that would connect 30,000 east Aucklanders to education and employment.

All the while, locals have been paying a regional fuel tax for three years yet have nothing to show for it and remain functionally isolated from greater Auckland.

The Eastern Busway delay is unacceptable and Simeon Brown and I will keep fighting for it to be prioritised and completed as soon as possible.

  • Christopher Luxon is MP for Botany

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