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The shape of Three Waters: Reform gets revamp

At an event in Greytown yesterday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins announced a watering down of the government’s controversial Three Waters Reforms, which have been renamed the Affordable Water Reforms and feature changes to allow for input from local councils.

Speaking in front of Greytown’s non-compliant water treatment facility, Hipkins said that ownership of water assets would be transferred from district councils to 10 new regional entities rather than four, as had previously been proposed.

Local councils would own the entities, but independent governance boards would run them.

Every district council would sit on “regional representative groups” alongside iwi to provide strategic oversight – but not governance – to the entities.

All three Wairarapa district councils said they were pleased the government had listened to councils’ concerns about local representation in the Three Waters governance structure. Wairarapa would be part of an entity corresponding to the Wellington Region, covering Wairarapa, Hutt Valley, Wellington, Porirua, and Kapiti. Hipkins said the government had heard the feedback from local councils that the previous four-entity solution was too centralised and did not have enough provision for a local voice.

“We went through a range of different options in the beginning, including significant conversations about whether to have a single national infrastructure entity for New Zealand, and we decided on the four-entity option as the right balance at that time,” Hipkins said.

“We haven’t been able to get sufficient support for that.”

Minister for Local Government and Wairarapa MP Kieran McAnulty said the 10-entity solution balanced financial capacity and local input.

He said the 10 entities would have access to economies of scale, being able to borrow more cheaply than local councils could alone, while each council having representation would ensure the priorities of local communities would be heard.

The government estimates it could cost up to $185 billion to upgrade the national water infrastructure over the next 30 years – a financial burden McAnulty said councils could not afford to pay alone.

McAnulty said that without access to centralised funding, households in some areas could see rates rise to $9730 per year by 2054, whereas ratepayers would see a 90 per cent cost reduction under the 10-entity reform compared to the status quo.

He said Maori seats on the regional representative groups were necessary given that Maori have a special interest in water that’s been established in the courts.

Hipkins said those arguing against reform were effectively arguing for higher rates and higher cost of living for New Zealanders.

Masterton Mayor Gary Caffell said it seemed to be a step in the right direction.

“At face value, creating smaller entities should mean a stronger voice at the table for the people of the Masterton District,” Caffell said, “but I am interested to see how the relationship between the entity boards and the Regional Representative Groups will work – particularly around priority setting and its impact on decision making.”

Carterton District Council chief executive Geoff Hamilton also said he was pleased with the changes to the governance model, noting “this places more control back in the hands of local authorities and our communities”.

South Wairarapa Mayor Martin Connelly said the 10-entity solution was a good compromise.

“If we had one national water entity, we would have even greater savings, but people care about more than money.

“People love their community, and they like to have some influence on what happens,” he said.

The government is aiming to have the 10 new entities in place in 2026. In response to the announcement, National Party local government spokesperson Simon Watts said the reforms and their co-governance model were “toxic” and “divisive”, and that water assets should stay in district council hands.

Watts said National would scrap the reforms and replace them with “Local Water Done Well”, which would have councils fund the $185 billion of upgrades through either rates or a user-pays system.

Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age who regularly writes about education. He is originally from Wellington and is interested in environmental issues and public transport.

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