Talking point: Three Waters reform is needed and long overdue

Maxine Boag says people don’t want to be poisoned by their drinking water or have brown water coming from their taps. Photo/NZME

Anyone who has heard me speak about Three Water Reform at Napier City Council meetings will know that I am supportive of the government’s reform agenda.

I am aware that emotion is mounting on this issue and that I am currently the only one on our council to support government reform. I respect the position of my colleagues but I have a different opinion.

I know from conversations in the community that there are others who also support the reforms; and as someone with a proven record of speaking out what I believe in, I agree.

There is no doubt that three water infrastructures across the country have been underfunded and pose health risks to people.

Every year, tens of thousands of kiwis fall ill from poor drinking water. Every week we hear of more cases of our water systems failing, whether it’s having sewers running through the streets of Wellington; the leak in our own sewage pipes that flow into Hawke Bay; lead levels in Waikouiti water approach dangerous levels; and the situation in Westport, where they face a lack of water.

All boards agree that the status quo is not an option. The reform of the Three Waters to remedy this is both necessary and late.

They all want our communities, cities and rural areas to have access to safe water services without huge rate increases.

New drinking water rules and improved waste and stormwater distribution under the water utility regulator, Taumata Arowai, will address these issues; but paying for necessary infrastructure upgrades is a potential financial time bomb for taxpayers.

Across the country, the work to be done is estimated at between $120 billion and $185 billion.

Maxine Boag, Napier City Councillor.  Photo / Provided
Maxine Boag, Napier City Councillor. Photo / Provided

The government’s reform program is designed to enable this, so that we all benefit from economies of scale that will allow us to borrow to improve our infrastructure to meet new regulations.

Scale is important because further professionalization of the industry will give it the scale and opportunity to implement a very large capital program as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Whether or not Three Waters solves all the problems, the idea that the government is “stealing” already public assets is wrong. They will remain public property with legislative protection against privatization.

Here in Hawke’s Bay, our five councils submitted our own local proposal to meet the new standards, covering the entire region.

As good as it is, this model cannot operate in the same economy of scale as the government’s reform proposal; nor does it solve the problem for any other part of New Zealand, which the reform program does.

As our Board votes this week on our biggest rate increase in 20 years, to 9.8%, I worry how far the $404 million already earmarked in our long-term water plan will get us through the reforms and what future tariff hikes we might face without government support.

It’s ironic that the Taxpayers’ Union, which is always critical of our rate increases, opposes councils combining our strengths to implement this reform nationwide.

However, what they notably object to is that the proposed reforms would establish four new public entities, collectively owned by councils, and co-run with iwi.

Far from being something to be feared, Maori involvement in the governance of the Three Waters is an opportunity to share knowledge, culture and expertise for the benefit of all.

Our Three Waters regional proposal also has an element of co-governance, but to my knowledge none of our local Maori entities have committed to endorsing the proposal.

Basically, we all want water services to work without being overwhelming. People don’t want to be poisoned by their drinking water, nor to have brown water coming from their taps, nor to have sewage flowing into the estuary.

We want these services to remain the property of the state, making the necessary improvements with the lowest price increases. The question is, can local government do it cheaper and more efficiently than central government?

As the former leader of the Ngati Kahungunu Iwi, Ngahiwi Tomoana, said: “The problems are simple.
“Ensuring clean, equitable and affordable water services for all, while protecting human health and the environment, should be the top priority of all communities.”

The government’s reform program, in my view, gives us the best opportunity to achieve this.

Maxine Boag is Napier City Councilor

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