Calls for halt to Three Waters info campaign
The Government has made a hash of explaining its plan to reform water services, according to the organisation that represents councils around the country.
Local Government NZ president, and former Tauranga Council mayor, Stuart Crosby has updated councils on the reaction to the proposed reforms in a plain-speaking letter that appeared on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting of the West Coast Regional Council.
LGNZ's national council is hearing from councils around the country that the number and pace of reforms are placing them under serious pressure, says Crosby.
"Councils are also being put in the unwelcome position of explaining central government policy to their communities, sometimes in the absence of public-facing detail from the Government, especially in three waters."
There is a sense that local democracy is being undermined and LGNZ has pushed back on this.
Under the proposed reforms, councils would hand over their drinking water, stormwater and a sewerage systems to be run by large publicly-owned entities — along with any associated debt.
The government says the new water authorities will have the borrowing power and efficiencies of scale that councils lack, to replace ageing pipes and get water services up to standard in an affordable way.
But the reforms are coming at the same time as new freshwater and biodiversity regulations, RMA reform and a looming review of the future of local government.
"There is a sense that ... everything's coming at us at once," says Crosby.
"This has been exacerbated by a poorly-pitched public information campaign, which LGNZ has had tough conversations about with both DIA and the Minister."
Crosby has asked the Prime Minister to cease the current public Three Waters campaign or reset it on a 'no blame' basis and clear information package.
"I am hearing two messages from (councils) in relation to the pressure on the sector right now around the three waters reform.
"Some are asking for reform to be made mandatory as soon as possible; some are asking for more time and a pause "
West Coast councils, with the exception of Buller, are among the majority of South Island councils who want the reforms paused.
Ideally, the Future for Local Government review should have come first, and the other policy reforms followed, says Crosby.
"We were reminded that we, as a sector, have pushed for various reforms for our sustainability — that the Future for Local Government review only came about because we asked for it.
"Change coming at us all at once does feel pressured, as councils grapple with everyday work and Covid on top of that, but National Council's role is to focus on the long term and consider the best interests of the sector overall.
"It was critical to use councils' collective knowledge to work in partnership with the Government, retain influence and show that councils could tackle the hard issues," says Crosby.
"There is a lot at stake for all New Zealanders. This request for more time... has been shared with the Minister of Local Government and Prime Minister and both wish to engage with their colleagues on the issues we have raised and engage further with LGNZ."
The heads of agreement that the Government and LGNZ have signed to work in partnership has not sat well with some councils, says Crosby.
While this may be, he says was a strong and positive way to engage with the Government.
"We have not had this direct relationship in a formal sense before. As an example, in the three waters space, we are currently working on what might be possible to better reflect the sector's concerns. "Common objections raised by many councils have been about how the new regional water authorities would be governed and connected to local councils and communities.
"If we remain credible, we have an opportunity to exert influence by promoting solutions that work for local government and our communities — and we all know the status quo isn't viable longer term.
"We must stay united — and use our unique platform — or the genuine opportunity to influence the reforms for the best interest of our communities will be diminished."