Axe Three Waters model, co-fund infrastructure projects –

OPINION: There’s enormous merit in pursuing the benefits of economies of scale, to help drive efficiencies and blitz the cost burden of duplicated administrative structures.
That’s primarily why I support the looming dissolution of our 20 district health boards and their perverse “postcode lottery” health outcomes.
However, the Government’s Three Waters reform programme, which would see all 67 councils relinquish their water infrastructure assets to four mega-regional water entities, looks dubious at best.
The reform agenda’s attempt to court public support has been blighted by a profligate, sensationalist and infantilising advertising blitz. It doesn’t pass the sniff test.
* Three Waters reform pushed ‘at alarming rate’, Timaru District mayor says
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* Canterbury districts stand to gain more from Government water reforms than Christchurch
* South Canterbury mayors raise concerns over three waters reform
* Water reforms hit an expensive snag, as cost estimate rises to $185b

The misleading advertising campaign, which clearly implies that our drinking water is gravely polluted and can’t be trusted, has played into the hands of the critics, who are increasingly perturbed by the government’s centralisation and co-governance agenda.
In Canterbury, the lack of appetite for these “asset-grabbing” reforms is resounding. The Waimakariri and Selwyn district councils have already stated it’s unlikely that they’ll voluntarily opt in.
Christchurch seems headed in the same direction, highly sceptical about the underlying financial assumptions and touted benefits being spruiked by the State.
Currently, the average Christchurch residential ratepayer pays $920 annually towards the city’s water infrastructure and services, accounting for roughly 30 per cent of the annual residential rates bill. If we are to believe the Government’s figures, that average water services charge will rise to $2720 in 2051, without reform.
However, if we opt in to the reforms, the average annual cost can be contained to $1640, in 30 years’ time.
Frankly, I don’t buy it. Just look at the average residential rates track in the past 10 years. Since 2011, my overall annual rates bill has rocketed by 104 per cent.
Three Waters rates charges have risen by nearly 300 per cent over the same period, as Christchurch tries to play catch-up on its ageing infrastructure.
Yet, the Government would have us believe, 30 years from now, we’ll only be paying 79 per cent more for Christchurch water rates than we do now, if we pony up to the regional water entity.
If we go it alone, they project the increase will balloon by 200 per cent. Meanwhile, Auckland ratepayers are being sold the carrot that their 2051 average water bill will only be $800, compared with $1640 in Christchurch. How is that equitable?
At the other end of the spectrum, councils with the smallest ratepayer bases, like Hurunui, Mackenzie and Waimate, are being promised that nearly $7000 will be shaved off their annual household water rates bills.
The city council is currently evaluating the veracity of the Government’s financial assumptions, during the eight-week engagement process. But after watching the full presentation to councillors last week, which resembled a mass convention of doubting Thomases, I’d be staggered if Christchurch ultimately opts in.
(As an aside, any hopes that Christchurch can successfully apply for an exemption to remove chlorine from our drinking supply, under the new Water Services Bill, looks remote.)
Former mayor Vicki Buck makes a compelling point, that if water assets were prised away from councils, it would destroy the ability of councils to co-ordinate multiple works, when digging up a road.
These convoluted water entities and their multiple governance and management layers will undeniably erode local control and accountability. There’s a huge risk that after councils surrender their water infrastructure, which also includes wetlands, swales and flood basins, these entities don’t actually deliver real savings and instead morph into bloated bureaucracies, with messy cross-subsidising between neighbouring regions.
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has incongruously boasted that these entities will create 9000 new jobs! How is that an efficiency-boosting model?
Following the hasty engagement process and any semblance of public consultation, if councils en masse opt out of the process, will these reforms be dead in the water, or will the Government make them mandatory?
Such an outrageous act of state overreach would rightly be viewed as an abuse. Surely the Government would resist such an incendiary muscle-flex.
I believe a preferable alternative would be to axe this four-entity model and instead propose directly co-funding water infrastructure projects, particularly for councils with low ratepayer bases, in partnership with local government. The current 50-50 funding arrangement that governs roading projects lights the way.
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