Updated Three Waters package still leaves big concerns for Waikato leaders

STUFF
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta says the Government will create four new public water entities, with local councils taking non-financial shareholdings in four new public water entities.

Senior Hamilton-based political leaders remain unconvinced by an updated Three Waters reform package announced by the Government on Friday, with one describing the changes as “a little bit of lipstick on the pig”.

Cabinet has agreed to the bulk of 47 three waters working group recommendations for a planned overhaul of the country's three waters – drinking, waste, and storm water systems – which it hopes to complete by July 2024.

Hamilton mayor Paula Southgate said there was nothing “terribly new” and that her council had been clear it didn’t support the idea of having four mega-entities for water services, which has been retained.

Speaking personally, she said she was keen to understand the detail of proposed legislation to help ensure Hamilton got the best deal out of any new arrangements.

Managing the many twists and turns of our regional water infrastructure – such as Watercare's, pictured – is provided for in an updated Three Waters package from the Government, but local concerns remain.
Supplied
Managing the many twists and turns of our regional water infrastructure – such as Watercare's, pictured – is provided for in an updated Three Waters package from the Government, but local concerns remain.

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* Three waters reform: Divisions widen among Hamilton politicians

“The Government’s got to hurry up and show us the draft legislation because at that point we can really start to consult with our community on something tangible and we can form our final view that we can take to the select committee.

“We’ve got to take a rational look at this thing, we’ve got to consider what’s right for Hamilton.”

It was important that the future direction was right for “fast-growing metros” such as Hamilton, which were different from rural and provincial areas.

The city council would be looking to make an in-person submission to the parliamentary select committee considering Three Waters enabling legislation, Southgate said.

Hamilton mayor Paula Southgate and deputy mayor Geoff Taylor both remain unconvinced that the Three Waters reform package is best for Hamilton.
Christel Yardley/Stuff
Hamilton mayor Paula Southgate and deputy mayor Geoff Taylor both remain unconvinced that the Three Waters reform package is best for Hamilton.

“It’s not over till it’s over.”

Deputy mayor Geoff Taylor, a Three Waters critic running for mayor at this year’s elections, said the changes were “completely cosmetic”.

“They’ve put a little bit of lipstick on the pig but half of it’s come off already.”

Regional representative groups - run on a co-governance model - would appoint water entity boards, while Hamilton’s water and sewerage systems would still be run by a corporate board “in some far off city”.

“So we are still thrown into a pot with 21 other councils with vastly different needs and budgets – and with no common interests whatsoever,” Taylor said.

On suggestions of big per household savings on water services in Hamilton by 2051, Taylor said: “It’s absolute bullshit ... what are they basing that on?”

Given an earlier failure to identify costs early under reform “how the hell do they pretend that they know what’s happening in 2051?”

Taylor agreed reforms were needed but also wanted the four-entity model scrapped. He wanted the Government to let councils borrow more money in a way that didn’t breach debt-to-revenue limits and guarantee loans for groups of councils that work together.

"”I’m angry because it’s just another con.”

Waikato Regional Council chairperson Russ Rimmington says the updated package is “fairer” but still feels there are too few water entities proposed.
Tom Lee/Stuff
Waikato Regional Council chairperson Russ Rimmington says the updated package is “fairer” but still feels there are too few water entities proposed.

Waikato Regional Council chair Russ Rimmington – a past Three Waters critic who says his leadership is under threat because of related issues – said the updated package was “fairer” because councils were given explicit shareholdings in water entities.

But, speaking personally, he also said just four entities was too few. He would prefer entities operate under a council controlled organisation model, effectively owned by ratepayers who had paid for the assets.

Importantly, co-governance involving mana whenua at entity board level has been ruled out, despite mana whenua on the working group suggesting it, a spokesperson for Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta told Stuff. But 50-50 council-mana whenua representatives on the regional representative groups will still appoint boards.

Rimmington said he needed to read more detail on this “before I stick my neck out” by commenting further.

Southgate, whose experience with co-governance includes being co-chair of the Waikato River Authority, said: “I know people are nervous about co-governance because I suspect people don’t understand how it works and what it means.” But, she added, she was OK with co-governance not being extended below regional representative group level.

Parekawhia McLean, the chairperson of Waikato-Tainui’s parliament Te Whakakitenga o Waikato, says co-governance has been a good thing for the Waikato River.
Tom Lee/Stuff
Parekawhia McLean, the chairperson of Waikato-Tainui’s parliament Te Whakakitenga o Waikato, says co-governance has been a good thing for the Waikato River.

Waikato-Tainui, meanwhile, didn’t respond directly to a Stuff query on whether they were disappointed that co-governance hadn’t been extended to board level, as requested by mana whenua working party members, who included Tukoroirangi Morgan, the chair of the iwi’s Te Arataura executive.

However, the chair of the iwi’s parliament Te Whakakitenga, Parekawhia McLean, said in a statement that co-governance was “a good thing and is not new for us” with respect to the Waikato River.

“It works and means that we can hold our partners to account to do the right thing.“

McLean said Waikato-Tainui was generally optimistic about the Three Waters reforms after Friday’s announcement, as they provided a clear direction of travel over the health and well-being of the iwi’s water resources.