Photo by Sourav Mishra from Pexels
Photo by Sourav Mishra from Pexels

OPINION: The tragedy of Three Waters

Opinion 16/11/2021

OPINION: A cornerstone of what it means to be a modern country is being able to access clean drinking water, be able to remove unclean water, and protect our communities from the effects of storms. This is provided to local communities through our three waters infrastructure.

This system is not perfect. I don't shy away from the problems that exist. It is true that some councils have not prioritised infrastructure like they should have and, consequently, the system is now further behind than it should be and the bills we are facing are higher. When this has occurred communities can face health risks like they did in Havelock North.

Some change is necessary, on that point almost everyone agrees. Indeed, we need a plan to bring our nation together and level up our infrastructure nationwide.

In response to this, instead of delivering a truly unifying plan, our current Government has proposed an outrageous policy where water assets are to be confiscated from local communities and forced into a new structure where unelected representatives and interest groups are prioritised.

In an entirely expected turn of events, New Zealanders have expressed strong opposition to the Ardern Government’s command and control strategy.

Water infrastructure is owned and managed by our local councils, who are elected to represent and serve our local communities. Our communities currently have control, and the Government is proposing to move that away from us and into a new authority that is not elected, does not need to respond to the community, and gives preferential treatment to certain groups over others.

The Government argues this is justified for two reasons. First, because the assets will remain in public ownership and second because the centralisation is necessary to deliver infrastructure upgrades. Both these claims are codswallop.

The assets will, to be fair, remain in public ownership. But critically, the community they service is shut out of the process. They don't have the same level of control and their interests are put into competition with other government interests. This is a good reason to be angry.

Let's look at the infrastructure needs. This is the more important claim and one where ACT has a true alternative.

The Government argues that something needs to be done and that its approach is the only way to level up infrastructure. This is patently false.

Instead of mandating and confiscating, ACT would provide for councils to enter voluntary “shared services” agreements, gaining the benefits of scale, while retaining local ownership and control.

We would then establish long-term 30-year Central Government/Local Government Partnership agreements to plan water infrastructure upgrades tailored to specific regions. These partnerships would allow for bespoke plans to be put in place where central government shares costs in exchange for clear targets and deliverables from councils.

Finally, ACT would establish Public-Private Partnerships (through our proposed Nation Building Agency) to attract investment from financial entities such as KiwiSaver funds, ACC, iwi investment funds and so on.

The Government could do all of this today if it wanted to. But what we are seeing with Three Waters is a government who does not believe any ideas except its own are worthy. It is unwilling to engage with local communities about how to manage their assets and, as a consequence, it has created the division we are seeing today.

The tragedy is that there is a better way and there always has been.

This oped was written by ACT's Local Government spokesperson Simon Court.

Simon is a Civil and Environmental Engineer with 23-years’ experience in roles for the private sector and local government, including 10-years leading engineering, planning, tendering, and construction teams.

Simon believes in the principles of the ACT party where communities, individuals and business lead the way. 

Local Government spokesperson Simon Court