Thursday, May 19, 2022

Three Waters battle far from over

The fight being mounted by a breakaway group of councils, including many that are rural-based, over the Government’s proposed three waters reforms is not over yet, the group’s chair and Manawatū District mayor Helen Worboys says.

Local Government NZ president Stuart Crosby says councils around the country are not completely united on their view of proposed Three Waters Reform, but LGNZ has been working to make sure concerns are being heard. Photo: LGNZ

The fight being mounted by a breakaway group of councils, including many that are rural-based, over the Government’s proposed three waters reforms is not over yet, the group’s chair and Manawatū District mayor Helen Worboys says.

She said Communities 4 Local Democracy (C4LD) had 25 mayors from around the country ready to fly into Wellington to meet Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta earlier last week to discuss the proposed reforms, but the meeting had to be postponed because of a positive covid test.

However, Worboys said negotiations are now under way to hold the meeting in April, at a date yet to be confirmed.

The meeting was in response to the recent release of an independent working group’s report on the proposed reforms that Worboys said was “predictably disappointing”, given the working group was stymied by its terms of reference, as it was tasked to provide feedback on the Government’s model rather than also considering alternatives.

“Our intention was to have a free and frank discussion with her (Mahuta), to let her clearly know that we believe that the working party recommendations were nothing more than a tweak to the Government’s model,” Worboys said.

“They didn’t address many of the concerns we raised or some of the areas (where) we believe that their model is flawed.”

Despite Mahuta welcoming the report on its release and saying Cabinet will now consider its recommendations before finalising reform plans and introducing legislation, Worboys is hopeful there is still time for C4LD’s concerns to be taken on board.

“We are trying to help her save face by saying ‘these aren’t going to work, you need to rethink them now before you go so far that it tips the whole thing over’,” she said.

Worboys said the National, Act and Green parties have all said they support repealing legislation based on the current proposals.

She said C4LD was also disappointed with the reaction of Local Government NZ (LGNZ) to the working group report, with LGNZ president Stuart Crosby saying on its release that the recommendations should go a long way to providing councils and communities with the added protection they were asking for. 

“They’re just like a puppy dog to the Government,” Worboys said.

“We have ongoing discussions with them (LGNZ), but the only reason C4LD exists is because LGNZ signed an agreement with the Government in June last year and in it, it says they will not oppose the Government’s approach.

“They did that without even asking their members.”

She said C4LD now has 32 councils behind it, which is almost half of the councils around the country, and many of those have motions on the table to review their LGNZ membership.

“There are a number of councils around the country who are saying this is not good enough, and they are going to review their membership.

“But that’s playing right into the Government’s hands,” she said.

“They’re (the Government) going to look at local government (and say) ‘they can’t even get their own act together’, which is really disappointing.”

Crosby said councils’ concerns about Three Waters Reform came through strongly during the eight-week feedback period that LGNZ negotiated with the Government last year and LGNZ had already raised its own concerns with aspects of the Government’s proposed model.

He said LGNZ acknowledges that not all councils are at one with their views.

“That is the nature of democracy,” Crosby said.

“But LGNZ has been amplifying all those concerns to the Government and strongly advocated for the creation of the working group so they could be addressed.”

He said the working group that looked into the proposed reforms was set up thanks to the partnership agreement negotiated by LGNZ with the Government.

“We’re pleased to see the working group recommend much greater clarity around who owns the assets, by introducing a public shareholding that councils will hold proportionately on behalf of communities,” he said.

Crosby said LGNZ endorses the process that the working group followed, which he says was robust and transparent.

“It’s interesting to note that every group that presented to the working group (including C4LD) wanted change,” he said.

“No one wanted to keep the status quo, which isn’t able to fund the future infrastructure that New Zealand needs. 

“Realistically, any delay may mean reform won’t proceed, which doesn’t serve anyone’s interests, especially future generations.

“Ultimately the Government gets to make the call and no model is ever likely to satisfy all councils and communities.”

He said LGNZ is committed to having real influence on how any government progresses reform. 

“We will always work with the Government of the day constructively, rather than take a purely oppositional stance.

“That is about outcomes, not politics.

“Partnerships can be messy, and are often hard, but they mean you can influence reforms rather than passively take it or simply oppose it.”

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