Making our water work for the whole region

People visit the Te Marua Water Treatment Plant during an open day.

People visit the Te Marua Water Treatment Plant during an open day.

Wellington Water is the company responsible for water supply, wastewater and stormwater across much of the Wellington region. It is jointly owned by five councils and is an excellent way of delivering a customer-focused infrastructure service, writes David Bassett.  

OPINION: Residents of the wider Wellington region have every right to expect their local government representatives to work together in their best interests. And while most did not favour last year's region-wide amalgamation proposal, that does not mean there isn't plenty to be gained from councils working together better.

As chair of the Wellington Water Committee, I have seen first hand how this can be achieved. Where increased collaboration between councils that share boundaries – or, indeed, water catchments – can deliver better value for money for ratepayers, then councillors should do what they can to make that happen.

That value is created through better investment decisions, better services, and better performance than councils can achieve individually. But even as they work together, councils must also be true to their constituents, to the interests of those whom they were elected to represent.

This has been the challenge for amalgamation proponents to overcome, and remains a priority for companies such as Wellington Water, which serves five councils, and is jointly owned by each council it serves.

Wellington Water was formed in September 2014. It is responsible for managing stormwater, wastewater, and water supply networks for Wellington, Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt, Porirua and the Greater Wellington Regional councils. The company is governed by a board of independent directors, who ensure its legal compliance, solvency and effective functioning as an organisation.

It is overseen by the Water Committee, which is effectively a shareholder's representative group. The current members of  the panel are Chris Laidlaw (chair of the Wellington Regional Council), Iona Pannett (Wellington City  councillor), Nick Leggett (Mayor of Porirua), Wayne Guppy (Mayor of Upper Hutt), and myself (Deputy Mayor of Lower  Hutt).

So how does a business with five masters and mistresses please them all, while at the same time delivering on the promise of greater efficiency?

While it is still early days, I and my colleagues on the Water Committee are confident that the Wellington Water model is showing strong signs of success.

The guiding principle of the model is one of trust. Wellington Water's stated aim is to be seen as its client councils' trusted adviser. Trust is something that is built over time. It is based on openness, honesty, and on doing what you say you will.

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What this means in practice is a relationship structure that ensures both councillors and council officers are kept fully informed of the advice Wellington Water is preparing, and the decisions that are made. I believe this is an exceptional way of delivering an infrastructure service. Exceptional both in the sense of unusual – I don't know of any other examples in the country – and excellent.

Wellington Water represents a team of expertise in managing stormwater, wastewater and water supply networks that is more capable any one of its owners could develop internally. Not only do we all benefit from combining these skills, but the shared service business is able to look across the regions' needs as a whole, and help individual councils work as a group to improve services and outcomes.

One example of this is in the area of water supply resilience. It is incredibly important for the Wellington region to get back up to speed as quickly as possible after any major disruptive event. By agreeing as a region on the levels of service that we think are right, we can plan to reach those as a group, and collaborate on how we get there.

Another example is in having consistent standards and materials used among the five councils. Working to obtain agreement on what pipes should be made of, and how they should be installed will make things easier, and therefore less costly, for the contractors and engineering consultants who design and build our three waters assets.

The scope of benefits stretches across improved information management for smarter decision-making,  smarter buying practices, and smarter work practices. 

As Sir Wira Gardner, chair of the Local Government Commission has flagged, the region's councils are now looking at whether a similar approach, and similar joined-up service, could be applied to roading and transport in the Wellington Region. This was one of the areas suggested by many in the region as being a suitable service delivery area where councils could share services, as an alternative to amalgamation.

There will, of course, be consultation with the public on the possible options. And if the public sees the benefits and wants it, based on our experience of Wellington Water, and on what I know is a  determination to deliver value for money for ratepayers, I believe this is something councils will do their best to make work.

David Bassett is chair of the Wellington Water Committee and Deputy Mayor of Lower Hutt.

 - The Dominion Post


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