PM Ardern addressed the nation’s local government officialdom at their annual meeting this week. The local government community, while eagerly gobbling up the billions the Labour Government has awarded to our 78 local and regional councils, is particularly divided on the issues of ‘3 Waters’ reform, in a massive row over turf protection.
Ardern showed no sign of backing off the Government’s reform plan, the key legislation for which — the Water Services Entities Bill — is currently being consulted by a Parliamentary Select Committee.
Here are Ardern’s remarks on ‘3 Waters’ in their entirety. They probably carry more weight than the futile, ratepayer money wasting, and increasingly boring breast-beating media releases of our region’s four mayors.
Three Waters reforms are moving forward
I know that the Three Water reforms are a key focus over the next few days, as they have been since the policy process began. There has been a lot of commentary on this topic that has at times overshadowed some of the very basic and crucial reasons for change.
The sad reality for all of us is that without change the current system couldn’t afford to resolve what is a looming $185bn problem. We know going forward we face growing populations alongside the rising threat of climate change, and the only viable option within the status quo represents an unaffordable burden on rate payers – for some, what could be as high as an additional $9000 a year.
And while we could spend a lot of time on how we got here, I think it’s fair to say that the general enthusiasm for investment in water infrastructure is only matched by the enthusiasm for major water reform. And that may have contributed to how we, both central and local government, have found ourselves in the unenviable position of carrying the burden of resolving this decades old problem. But it has to be done. And by taking the leap, there are opportunities to be found.
And so today I would hope the progress that is starting to be made, will move us beyond the old debate, into the how, and the what’s next.
And we are making progress.
First, all parties have agreed that there is a need for substantial change. It is heartening to see many councils lift investments in water networks in their Long-term Plans. Taumata Arowai, the new drinking water regulator, has been up and running since November last year.
I know that at the heart of councils’ concerns has been the issue of ownership and voice, and in April, the Government confirmed local council ownership and strengthened local voice by accepting the vast majority of the Three Waters Working Group recommendations on representation, governance and accountability.
In addition, the $700 million stimulus funding from Budget 2020 has resulted in the upgrade of:
· 266km of drinking water pipes
· 133km of wastewater pipes
· 79 drinking water treatment plants
· 78 wastewater treatment plants
And the $2.5 billion that followed has been unlocked with 47 councils having now applied for the Better-Off funding.
Legislation is underway, with the introduction of the Water Services Entities Bill in June to establish the four new publicly owned water services entities, and The Water Services drinking standards regulations will come into effect in November.
I hope that you have taken the opportunity to submit to the Select Committee considering the first bill. And that you will do the same when the legislation to establish the economic regulator and to enable the transition to the new entities is before the House, early next year.
There are opportunities for us to continue to improve and refine the details around these reforms, and we genuinely want to do that.
We have benefitted from the direct involvement of many local government representatives, including Local Government New Zealand, in improving the proposals for change. Direct council shareholdings in the new entities, direct appointments from the Regional Representative Groups to the boards, and more influence for those Groups over the new entities were all changes introduced in response to the requests of local government representatives.
We won’t necessarily agree on everything though. For instance, we’re firmly of the view that the issues with the safety, quality, cost and sustainability of our water services systems are inter-linked and that a small number of entities that are council-owned but financially separate can unlock the funding and investment and focus required to improve Three Waters over the long-term.
But we’re also clear that central government should not have an ownership or funding role for the entities. These entities can achieve the scale and specialisation required to operate on their own.
And there is much we need them to do. Now is the time to take this opportunity to improve these persistent, long-standing issues where they exist, least we continue to see the domino effect on housing and regional economic growth.