Our local territorial councils have just about managed to make ‘3 Waters’ a term recognized by most Hawke’s Bay households. Mostly by trying to scare the beejeebies out residents by warning that Wellington bureaucrats are preparing to plunder the region, stealing our water faucets and garden hoses.
With the Government expecting feedback on its proposal to consolidate the delivery of water services by October 1, the press releases have flowed from our councils, each raising objections to the Government’s ‘3 Waters’ plan.
In occasional moments of honesty, the councils admit that they (their predecessor councils, that is) have totally botched their public duty to provide effective modern infrastructure that delivers safe drinking water and disposes of stormwater and wastewater without continually fouling our rivers, streams, estuaries and marine environment.
So each council professes hand-on-heart that ‘business as usual’ is unacceptable. And to their credit our councils have in recent long term plans (LTPS) initiated the long overdue investment programmes to upgrade their various water systems. It will take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring these systems to 21st Century standards.
A recent study conducted for the region conservatively estimated that $605 million will be required to bring Hawke’s Bay’s aging water systems up to modern world standards in terms of safety, reliability and environmental performance. That amount, almost twice the $313 million forecast in our councils’ most recent long-term plans, is considered conservative.
And that’s where the Government steps in.
- The Government says every citizen of NZ has an equal right to modern water services.
- The cost of getting there is gigantic — $185 billion nationwide and rising with each new estimate.
- Some form of financial cross-subsidy will be needed so that – as in HB’s case with CHB and Wairoa – councils serving residents living in areas with lower rates bases can afford the upgrades. Mayor Little just wants the Government dosh, no strings attached, thank you.
- The Government argues that major consolidation of planning, rating for, and implementing service upgrades and delivery is both required to get the job done at all (avoiding local council backsliding) and to get it done efficiently (given constraints on competent professional staff and need to rationally prioritise need) and at less ratepayer/taxpayer cost.
Any proposal claiming those benefits deserves careful consideration as opposed to scaremongering. The Government is not the villain here; the villains are scores of previous mayors and councillors, names long forgotten, who failed in their duties.
Our local councils fear their loss of control over this turf and insist they can be trusted to do a better job in the future. Fingers crossed on that one.
And they’ve been working on a new regional structure they insist will overcome the shortcomings of the past, but somehow miraculously solve the financial difficulties of providing the same improved level of service across the region (will Hastings and Napier help subsidise their poor cousins in CHB and Wairoa?) while meeting tougher environmental standards.
In the weeks ahead, perhaps the Government will modify its proposal – simplification of the governance structure would help, for example. But it should not back off one inch on its objective – guaranteeing water systems and services that are safe for human and environmental health and available to all New Zealanders wherever they live.
The burden of proof here is on local councils, not the Government.