The person who wrote this letter decided to reply to an unsatisfactory reply he had received from Minister Mahuta. Here is his latest letter:
3 Waters Reform
I am writing to you again following your reply dated 3 December 2021. Thank you for your response. However, I do not feel that I have been heard, and I understand and believe that to be the case for many councils and that now seems to be borne out by the latest media releases on this matter. I will come to that point later.
In your second paragraph you state: “As you acknowledge, it is widely agreed that current arrangements for our three waters network are not able to meet our country’s needs…”.
Firstly, I have to say, please do not take out of context and twist my acknowledgement that improvements are needed to our three waters networks. I acknowledged that improvements were needed but not that our country’s networks were unable to meet our country’s needs – which conveys the impression that only a fix as you promote, can sort this problem out.
Yes, in some communities, there are significant problems that must be addressed. Conversely, there are also examples where the systems are (a) in good condition e.g., Christchurch (aside from the wellhead problem close to being remediated) and Havelock North – the site of the drinking water house crisis that precipitated your initiative (and which now has a good system in place) to name just two.
My point is that this is not a “one size fits all” solution that is required. Water systems vary markedly around the country and although there may be commonalities, such a vital and important resource (infrastructure/ownership and management) should remain closely managed within communities.
This is an example of the centralisation processes that this government seems so intent on imposing on people. It was not well received by the majority of Councils (representing their ratepayers) throughout Aotearoa/NZ. Despite this, you insisted on mandating a poorly managed and poorly thought-out water reform. This is unforgivable and I will set out my numbered points of concern below.
Points of concern:
1. Costs to ratepayers are identified as unaffordable and steeply rising in the face of historical underinvestment by Councils. Yes, costs have and continue to rise and Councils have to acknowledge responsibility, but it is not theirs alone to shoulder. I believe successive governments have also contributed to this problem, particularly since the reform of the Local Government Act 2002. This significantly broadened Council’s responsibilities and since then, many added complexities (some beyond their control), in a rapidly changing world has, I suspect, made it difficult to undertake the balancing act of fulfilling all of their functions whilst attempting to keep rates down. I am not trying to defend councils (I can often find them frustrating to deal with) but I believe the way you have undertaken this process has been disrespectful and akin to disenfranchising them.
2. You outline there has been four years of comprehensive analysis, research and consultation. If that was the case, then the proposal put forward would not have been so clumsily presented to councils and the public (lack of information to enable Councils to adequately respond, PR misinformation); and these, and other matters, has, in part, contributed to the fact that you are now having to put the legislation on hold until next year. I acknowledge you have set up Working groups contributing to delay.
3. You talk in your letter about your proposal being “Transformational reform – rather than piecemeal solutions”. I don’t think what many local authorities may have proposed in response is ‘piecemeal’ – that is convenient and insulting jargon and rules out any prospect of considering alternative options. And with due respect minister, I have yet to see anything this current government has done that is transformational. There has been a lot of talk about this but the transformational “Kiwibuild’ project was an abject failure; and the transformational approach to climate change is proving to be anything but. These examples and the way 3 Waters Reform has been rolled out by DIA gives me little confidence that this approach is necessarily the right one or that it will deliver the transformation referred to.
4. Your second paragraph on page 2 of your letter sets out to assure me that the planned safeguards are robust and signal a clear commitment to the ongoing public ownership of water assets and infrastructure now and into the future…. etc. Despite your planned safeguards and clear commitment, your ‘assurance’ simply cannot be guaranteed can it Minister? All you can say is that: “However, the legislative protections that are proposed under these reforms will make any attempt at privatisation of water assets even more difficult than compared with current arrangements”. This is not an assurance.
5. Para 3 of your letter does acknowledge some of my concerns regarding the publicity by stating: “…that the three waters public information and advertising campaign did not provide in-depth detail of the proposed reforms. The campaign’s aim was to build wider community understanding of the challenges facing NZ’s three water networks”. The letter remained silent on my concerns regarding misinformation and failure to convey some of the important facts; and that even LGNZ asked for some of this information to be withdrawn.
This aspect of your reply is now even more concerning considering the media release dated earlier this week that denoted you were in breach of your own guidelines in your public advertisements.
6. In your penultimate paragraph you say “The Government remains committed to working in partnership with local government…. etc”. The manner in which you have gone about ‘partnership’ with local government is questionable and, in my opinion, brings the concept of partnership into disrepute for the following reasons:
· You seem to apportion the total blame for underfunding against Councils (refer Point 1. above). Ironically in your last paragraph you refer to “…risks that have been known about and avoided for more than two decades….”. I assume that includes successive governments having known about this including a previous Clark led administration.
· The manner in which you proposed an opt-out clause if Councils did not want to be part of this. When it became clear there was considerable unease with the proposal, you consistently refused to rule out mandating but it wasn’t until October that you took this action.
· At 3.58pm yesterday RNZ carried a report – Three waters: Government agreed to mandated strategy before four entities announced. This sets out:
– that you had consistently refused to rule out making the reforms mandatory, but did not confirm the move until 27 October
– Interestingly, according to this report, Deputy PM Robertson speaking on your behalf (26 Oct), was rejecting rumours the government would take that approach!
– the government had already secured agreement from LGNZ not to actively oppose a possible mandatory approach. As you know many of the councils were blindsided with LGNZ’s involvement with the “Heads of Agreement” they entered into with the government and that is still the subject of considerable rancour within some councils.
– that the government kept councils guessing for months about whether they would be forced into three waters reforms, despite having already agreed to pursue such a strategy, cabinet papers reveal. The article states that Cabinet papers now show a strategy to pursue and ‘legislated all-in’ approach – agreed by cabinet in June.
What is so concerning about this is – the lack of sound/professional consultation with councils. They were supplied with lack of details on occasion until very late in the piece, and DIA accused Councils of providing wrong information to them and this was considered suspect. – hardly professional consultative type processes/behaviours. Although councils were told on several occasions that mandating was a possibility (it seemed like a threat); there was continuing “consultation” when in fact it now apparent the decision had already been taken by cabinet. Council and communities were in effect continuing to put effort into something that was a fait accompli. The approach and contentious way in which this has been handled hardly augurs well for good faith participation by local government, which, according to this article, is something that cabinet wants, because of pending RMA and LG reforms in the pipeline.
We now hear that the introduction of the legislation has been delayed until next year to allow feedback from the working group and to enable the governance working group to recommend changes.
7. I would strongly urge you to lift the level of active listening, and respectful engagement with councils from this point forward. It has not been a good example of a well-led government proposal and it has alienated many councils and their constituents, and it will continue to do so unless there is some substantive change.