Timaru council stacks up opposition to Govt's Three Waters proposal

Timaru District mayor Nigel Bowen says the Government’s proposed Three Waters reform is “heavy-handed, critically-flawed and massively unpopular.”
Timaru District mayor Nigel Bowen says the Government’s proposed Three Waters reform is “heavy-handed, critically-flawed and massively unpopular.”

The Timaru District Council has come out swinging against the Government's Three Waters proposal, backed up by two commissioned reports against it as well as an informal public poll that showed 96 per cent were opposed.

“With the likelihood of the majority of feedback from councils being against the plan, I sincerely hope the Minister for Local Government decides to work with the sector to create an effective Plan B, rather than forcing through this heavy-handed, critically-flawed and massively unpopular reform plan,” Timaru District mayor Nigel Bowen said.

“We now have two reports casting serious doubt on the proposals and an extremely clear signal from the community that the loss of local control in the three waters space is not something they welcome.”

On Tuesday, the council would consider a report from Three Waters strategy advisor Ashley Harper recommending, in a submission to the Department of Internal Affairs, that it opposed the Government’s proposal to establish four water entities and remove three waters assets and services from local councils.

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Harper's report said the main concerns were: Loss of local voice, decision-making, and ability to meet local needs and aspirations; the proposal’s evidence was flawed; and reform should not occur without clear regulatory standards, and a framework for financial regulation.

Council-commissioned reports from global infrastructure consultants Castalia, and New Zealand management consultants Morrison Low, showed the case for Three Waters Reform was not as compelling as the Government claimed, a council statement said.

The reports cast doubt on the efficiency and cost savings claimed in a Water Industry Commission for Scotland (WICS) report which underpinned the Government’s model.

Castalia said the WICS Reform was based on faulty assumptions and flawed analysis, while claims of any cost savings were due to WICS’ observations, not actual evidence.

“The modelling presented by WICS shows an extremely optimistic view of the Government’s reform scenario and an extremely pessimistic view of council work, it’s simply not a fair comparison,” Bowen said.

The Timaru District Council meets on Tuesday to consider its Three Waters submission to the Department of Internal Affairs.
The Timaru District Council meets on Tuesday to consider its Three Waters submission to the Department of Internal Affairs.

“The claimed efficiency gains following the Scottish reform in 2002, also suggests that councils haven’t been working to innovate and improve efficiency in parallel to Scotland over the past 20 years, nor would we continue to innovate.

“Our concern is that for many councils, us included, many of the efficiencies that the Government is touting they will deliver have already been realised by the sector, and some others such as increasing interconnectedness seem implausible.

“It’s easy to achieve operational efficiencies when the majority of your population lives in a corridor similar in distance from here to Oamaru. That benefit isn’t so clear for our community.”

The council statement said a Morrison Low review of the council dashboards released by the Department of Internal Affairs showed future council costs had been overstated by around 20 per cent.

Also, many of the assumptions around asset renewals could have resulted also in an overstatement of debt and revenue projections.

Bowen said the council now had two reports casting serious doubt on the Government's proposed reform.

“In considering our submission to Government, these are issues that we can’t simply ignore, and we would expect in turn for the minister to take both our and the concerns of our community seriously.

“This is not to say that we don’t welcome regulatory reform. The introduction of Taumata Arowai is a positive development that will ensure local government walks the talk when it comes to provision of safe drinking water, and environmentally sound wastewater and storm water management.

“However, I feel that local government should be empowered to work collaboratively with the Government on systems that can do the job, while keeping the strengths of localism, responsiveness and representation missing from the current proposal.”

An informal survey of Timaru District residents, via post and online, received 1345 responses, of whom 96 per cent said they did not agree with the Three Waters proposal.

“From feedback to us, and similar exercises by other councils, it’s becoming increasingly evident that it would be difficult for the Government to claim widespread public support,” Bowen said.

“I think that now is the time for the Government to take a pause and work in collaboration with its stakeholders, the people who have been running water services in New Zealand for more than 100 years, rather relying on a model based on what are increasingly faulty looking assumptions.”

The council is expected to meet at 3pm on Tuesday to consider its submission. Due to restrictions, under Covid alert level 2 which limits attendance, the council was investigating possible livestreaming.