Judith Collins: Three Waters reforms mean you will pay more for less control

OPINION:

It’s a strange time when, with almost half the country’s population in lockdown, it’s actually another Government decision that’s got people threatening to march in the streets.

Stranger still are ex-Labour Party ministers like Auckland mayor Phil Goff and Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel denouncing one of the Government’s most significant and far-reaching plans, the Three Waters reforms, saying they will harm democratic accountability and rob communities of a voice.

Masterton councillor Tina Nixon put it much more simply, calling the Government “a deceitful, lying pack of bastards”.

“Three Waters” refers to your council-controlled drinking water, stormwater and sewerage – something you either pay for through a specific bill, or paid for via rates.

The Government’s plan would see those water assets and services taken away from councils, and bundled into one of four new regional mega-entities.

Labour had long promised its Three Waters amalgamation would be a voluntary “opt-in” model. It was on this understanding that councils agreed to consider the plans and hand over information to central government.

But when it became clear that an overwhelming majority of councils didn’t like the idea, Labour simply reneged on their earlier promise and have made the amalgamation compulsory – effectively seizing the assets your rates have paid for.

National agrees there are problems. We supported the establishment of the water regulator Taumata Arowai to oversee drinking water quality and step in when councils drop the ball.

We support councils being able to amalgamate their water services on their own terms – just as we have Wellington Water managing the assets of five Wellington councils. There are other tools that could be applied, like an Infrastructure Bank to support councils to finance infrastructure investments, or encouraging councils to collaborate together or form council-controlled organisations that are still accountable to ratepayers.

Ultimately, there are plenty of alternative options that would be smarter and more practical than Labour’s broken entity model.

What we can’t support is the mandatory confiscation of water assets.

Labour maintains no assets will be taken, and councils will still “own” the assets and the new entities. There will be no shares and no management control – only what is simply being described as “collective ownership”.

I can’t help but be reminded of a farmer in communist Russia being told the state wasn’t confiscating their farm, they were simply moving it into “collective ownership”.

Each of the four new super entities will have six council representatives on a “regional representative group”. The other six members of this group will be unelected iwi representatives.

This group then selects an “independent selection panel”, which then appoints the entity board, which then appoints the entity management team.

If it sounds complicated, it is.

Up to 22 councils in one entity will have so-called “collective ownership”, but highly diluted control.

What this all means for ratepayers is that if you don’t already pay for your water, you soon will. If your water is expensive, you won’t be able to vote anyone out. If the entity is bloated and underperforming, there is no democratic accountability.

These entities will have decisions made by iwi representatives, unelected governors and appointed officials. You will pay more and have less control. And this is the real nub of the issue.

The Government’s claims that the reforms will save money are laughable. Labour suggests that no jobs will be lost, 7000 jobs will be created, and better outcomes will be achieved. Frankly, that can’t all be true.

Changing the signs on the treatment plant gate won’t make them run more efficiently.

There will still be the same pipes and plant costing the same amount, no matter how many officials or organisations are involved.

We’re seeing this loss of local control with the restructure of our district health boards into NZ Health and a Māori Health Authority, where the Māori Health Authority can veto the policy decisions of NZ Health.

We’re seeing it with Resource Management Act reform where new regional “planning committees” would have district councillors sitting around the table with unelected mana whenua representatives.

These water reforms are more about ownership than management.

This is the risk we all face. Presently up to 40 per cent of your rates go to water services. Under Labour’s plan, you should expect a new bill to be added to the pile – not to see your rates go down.

New bureaucracy will be created, with less democratic accountability and less local, ratepayer control.

For all their quirks and faults, councils are directly elected by their communities. It’s essential they hold power and control over local, ratepayer-owned assets – not unelected departments that might be hundreds of kilometres away.

That’s why National cannot support Labour’s unworkable proposal. We must keep the “local” in local government.

• Judith Collins is leader of the National Party.

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