June 10, 2022
The Water Services Entities Bill, the first of two Bills giving effect to the Government’s water services proposals, has been introduced to Parliament in the face of strong opposition from across the country.
The unpopular and controversial project began with the catastrophic failure of a Havelock North wellhead in 2016 which resulted in the death of four people and 5000 people falling seriously ill. A year later a comprehensive report revealed that a significant number of public drinking water systems, managed by district councils, were potentially unsafe through underinvestment in maintenance over many years.
Rather than identify which systems needed an overhaul and concentrating on them, the Government decided to set up an entirely new system to take over the whole lot.
Initially the Government gave district councils two months to decide to voluntarily surrender their storm water, waste water and drinking water systems, valued in the billions of dollars, to the Government, for an agreed payment much less than valuation, or retain them but meet strict new standards. There were few details about the new system in spite of many requests and 60 of the 67 councils eventually declined the offer. Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta decided to take them anyway and appointed a working group to establish four new entities to take them over.
There were predictably loud local government protests with at least three district councils making an application to the High Court for legal redress and about twenty others forming a group to try and convince the Government to re-think details of the new proposal. Local Government New Zealand, the official lobby group for local bodies, has however signed a heads of agreement in principle with the Government in support of the changes entirely without a mandate to do so.
In a strange contradiction councils have been promised they will be shareholders in the ownership of their water assets and services, through the four new entities, and local communities will retain influence over how the assets are run through the councils. The reality is that with only four new entities, one covering most of the South Island and Stewart Island, taking over the role of 67 district councils the voices of small rural communities in particular will never be heard.
To make matters even more concerning the powerful Labour Maori Caucus seems to have pushed the Government in agreeing that the new group will consist of nine mayors and nine Maori representatives with no public consultation or discussion with district councils. Maori will also hold half the seats on all four new entities. That raised eyebrows, hackles and blood pressure up and down the country but the reaction was quickly dismissed as racism. That shallow and unfair response does a serious disservice to hundreds of elected district councillors, including a number of Maori councillors, who rightly object to any community group, regardless of ethnicity or political affiliation, being given special status in the management of something as essential as drinking water.
It is not racism, or anything close to it, but an insistence on democracy and equality. To suggest otherwise is mischief-making. It also casts all other Maori as the unwilling pawns in less than honest political antics and that is equally unfair and divisive. No one should have prior right of access to, or management of, everyone’s drinking water.
There are also conflicting opinions about what the new system will cost ratepayers to the point where, in some rural communities, people have already decided to withdraw from district council reticulated water systems and install rain tanks or rely on their own farm wells.
There is no doubt that many water management systems need urgent investment. So also do many other communally owned assets. Thousands of kilometres of rural roads, which were designed and built for light traffic now have 55 ton trucks and giant tractors pounding them to ruin. There are also many thousands of hectares of council owned and managed parks and reserves with some of them in such a neglected state that it would be better to plough them and plant them in spuds but there is no scramble to take over responsibility for these assets… yet.
The four new water entities have all the hall marks of a secret embryonic replacement system of local government, with 50 percent Maori control, eventually taking over the role of all existing district and regional councils and unitary authorities.