Friday, April 19, 2024

Mahuta defends water reform mandate

Neal Wallace
Rural communities know better than most the benefits of using scale to leverage investment such as the Government intends with its Three Waters Reform, says Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta says the mandated Three Waters policy is the best way to leverage off water assets for every community, which is why the Government “stands by the proposed reforms in totality”.

Rural communities know better than most the benefits of using scale to leverage investment such as the Government intends with its Three Waters Reform, says Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta.

Mahuta this week embarked on a sales pitch after recently mandating the creation of four entities to manage drinking, waste and stormwater, a move which provoked widespread criticism.

The minister is unrepentant, saying fearmongering rather than fact is tainting discussion and establishing four management entities across the country is the only way to fund future infrastructure demands and address decades of underinvestment.

“This was an issue when I was a junior MP 20 years ago and now I have an opportunity as a minister to do something about it and I am not going to sit on my hands and twiddle my thumbs,” Mahuta said in an interview.

She says the proposal is advantageous to rural councils where a small ratepayer base makes funding infrastructure upgrades financially onerous.

“The issue is too big for any one council,” she said.

Officials have worked with rural leaders and changed regulations, such as amending rules that require registration of drinking water services.

“Our proposal will allow the leveraging of assets so communities can benefit from the total sum game and (in) the model we have created we have shown will meet improving drinking water and environmental standards,” she said.

“We are in the right zone if the conversation is based on facts and not fear.”

The relationship between local and central Government has plummeted, with councils labelling Mahuta’s decision to mandate the policy “theft,” “arrogance,” “an abuse of power”, “dishonesty” and a loss of local control and democracy.

According to some reports, 60 out of 67 councils oppose the policy.

Mahuta acknowledged that resistance, but says the Government has been talking to councils for four years and some of the most vocal opponents have “come late to the conversation”.

She also claimed some councils are resistant to change, but more significantly she says declining infrastructure means time is against further delays.

Any solution has to be financially sustainable, provide investment for infrastructure, meet drinking water and environmental standards, preserve public ownership and benefit consumers and ratepayers.

Asked why the Government has promoted just one solution, Mahuta says the favoured option met all those requirements.

“After marrying up all of those considerations and models, there were about 30 of them, most of which were ruled out, we landed where we did,” she said.

“It is the best way we can leverage off water assets for every community, which is why we stand by the proposed reforms in totality.”

Responding to councils’ claim of a loss of democracy and ratepayer control, Mahuta says assets will remain council-owned and they will contribute to their strategic direction, but the assets will be managed by a new entity.

Councils and mana whenua will jointly appoint a regional representative group, which will appoint an independent selection panel.

They in turn will appoint the board which manages and runs the entity.

Councils argue this offers too little representation for their democratically elected members, but the minister is establishing a joint working group to reconsider governance arrangements.

Others have argued this appointment process gives iwi a disproportionate influence, but Mahuta says iwi already collaborate with councils and this is an extension of that relationship.

“This is not a new thing but done in a different way,” she said.

Asked if this arrangement could lead to iwi ultimately owning and managing freshwater, Mahuta says “no”.

“That is not the case, it will not happen and is not provided for in any thinking we have on this model,” she said.

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