Government must press pause on Three Waters Reforms

Check out my Southland Times column from September 2.


New Zealand’s history books are filled with free and open debates on issues that are of the utmost importance to our communities.

Our country has a proud democratic history and having our say is a part of our way of life.

Right now there is plenty of conjecture around the Government’s Three Waters Reforms and rightly so.

But that conversation hasn’t been free and open.

At the moment almost all the discussion around the massive changes to New Zealand’s community drinking water, wastewater and drain water assets has been held in the media.

At last count 22 of 28 South Island councils have called for a pause on the 3 Waters reform process.

That number includes every relevant local government body in Otago and Southland.

Councils across New Zealand are making their stances public through news reports and interviews in an effort to be heard because the Government isn’t listening to their concerns.

That’s despite the bill for the implementation of the 3 Waters reforms being estimated to be between $120 billion to $185 billion.

The combined voices of our councils say they don’t have enough information on why they should hand over ownership of all of their water assets to an entity that stretches towards the top of the South Island.

Councils have also said they feel the Government is rushing them through the reform process.

That combination is a recipe for disaster, especially considering what is at stake - a once in a generation change.

The answer is simple.

The Government must hit pause on these landmark reforms and then address council concerns by engaging with them and the public in a free and transparent conversation on the merits of the 3 Waters Reforms.

It’s not only the right thing to do and the sensible thing to do, it’s the lawful thing to do.

The Local Government Act has a process to ensure democracy across New Zealand’s regions by making it a legal requirement for councils to consult their communities and their ratepayers on major changes to their priorities and their resources.

The Government’s handling of the 3 Waters process has ignored that legal requirement.

Pausing the 3 Waters process would allow councils to fulfil their legal obligations by giving them time to engage their communities.

The Government first has to give councils all the information they need, so that councils can have meaningful consultation with their communities.

Together with a proper dialogue from the Government, councils will be able to make informed decisions on the future of their water assets.

There should be no rush when it comes to implementing once in a generation change.

Taking a patient approach has the added benefit of allowing local government bodies to focus on what is most important right now.

New Zealanders have made huge sacrifices during Level 4 lockdown and the price individuals and businesses are paying will last many times longer than the two weeks that Southlanders were forced to stay at home and in their essential jobs.

Councils shouldn’t be spending the recovery period fighting the Government for a fair hearing over the ownership of water pipes and pumps.

Supporting communities and their local economies should be their focus right now, and the Government should give them the time and space to do so.

At the same time Government should also be focusing all of its efforts to protect our communities from the pandemic, rather than getting side tracked with yet another massive project.