Three waters and local government reform

Published on June 30, 2022

David Langford

How do you see the future for Whanganui?

David Langford, chief executive

Massive change is coming to communities across Aotearoa in the next two to three years as central government drives a major programme of reforms.

I want to be clear that these are being driven by central government, not local councils – the reforms are being done to us, not by us.

There has been plenty of debate about the three waters reforms proposals, but did you know that the government is driving a much wider programme of reforms? These include health reform, legislation to replace the Resource Management Act, a new national waste strategy and a review of the future for local government.

Those of you that have been following events will know that three waters reform was debated at the Whanganui District Council meeting on 22 March this year. At this meeting the council formally decided that it was opposed to the current three waters reform proposal. This was supported unanimously by all of the councillors.

When we talk about the three waters reforms, it is essential we also talk about all of the other reforms so we don't allow the government to accidently create a new system that doesn't meet our communities’ needs.

If you haven’t been following so closely, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. So here is a quick recap of what central government is proposing:

Three Waters: The government’s proposal is that local councils will no longer deliver drinking water, wastewater and storm water services. Instead, they want four new organisations to deliver these services across the whole country – something like the way power companies work. These new organisations will still be owned by councils, but almost all of the decisions will be made by boards of professional directors.

The government thinks these larger organisations will be able to borrow more money and deliver efficiency savings to pay for the infrastructure upgrades that are needed. However, the council is concerned that these efficiencies will remove local decision making – particularly if the new water services organisation sets up its head office in a larger centre like Hamilton or Tauranga, which is located far away from Whanganui. When decisions are made from afar, things that are important, like Te Awa Tupua and the Whanganui river settlement, might get overlooked.

We are also concerned that, because Whanganui’s water infrastructure is in relatively good condition, our community will end up paying for upgrades and repairs in other parts of the country.

Resource Management Act: The government is scrapping the Resource Management Act (1991) and planning to replace it with three new pieces of legislation: the Natural Built Environment Act, the Strategic Planning Act and the Climate Adaption Act. One of the key changes that central government is proposing is that local councils will no longer produce district plans to direct how urban development occurs. Instead the government wants to set up new committees that will be responsible for making strategic plans at a regional level.

Many of the changes proposed are well intentioned and aim to better protect the environment while also making it easier for residential development and house building to occur. But the council is concerned that the needs of smaller districts will be left out and the priorities of bigger cities will dominate these new regional plans.

Future of Local Government Review: There are no firm proposals from central government yet. The review panel is asking these five key questions before they put together a proposal:

  • How should the system of local government be reshaped so it can adapt to future challenges and enable communities to thrive?

     

  • What are the future functions, roles and essential features of the local government system?

     

  • How might a system of local government better embody authentic partnership under Te Tiriti o Waitangi?

     

  • What needs to change so local government and its leaders best reflect and respond to the communities they serve?

     

  • What should change in local government funding and financing to ensure viability and sustainability, fairness and equity?

To some people change can appear threatening and that’s understandable - I also have concerns. For example, will decision making about issues that affect Whanganui be transferred to people or organisations in Wellington, Palmerston North or Hamilton? And what will happen to our local voice?

On the other hand, I also see these reforms as a once-in-a generation opportunity to shape a better future for Whanganui. We can make sure that good quality infrastructure is well maintained and that local councils and government agencies deliver the right services to ensure everyone is supported to get the most out of life. 

As our council considers how best to influence the government so that we get the best possible outcomes for Whanganui, it reminds me of the whakatauki:

Mā whero, ma pango ka oti ai te mahi.

Roughly translated it means ‘when leaders and the people are united the work will get done’. That’s why we have launched a consultation survey this week – we want to hear what you think Whanganui’s future should look like. The council will then use this feedback to shape the way we influence central government as these reforms are developed.

The survey is online at www.whanganui.govt/haveyoursay

 

 

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