Contrary to government instruction that there is no need for community consultation at this stage of the three waters reform proposal, all three Eastern Bay district councils are seeking feedback.
Whakatāne, Kawerau and Ōpōtiki district councils have called for feedback on the proposed reforms, which will take management of drinking water, sewerage and stormwater out of the hands of local government and create new entities to manage the water in four geographic areas of New Zealand.
Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner told the Beacon, "We're calling on our community to give us initial feedback now, to help shape our response to Government and we'll continue talking to our communities as the reform process unfolds.
"The process we are going through at the moment is thoroughly testing the information we have been provided by central Government and identifying any issues, concerns or opportunities and I'm keeping a totally open mind as we work through that process."
Ōpōtiki Mayor Lyn Riesterer has been transparent in expressing her concerns about the reform.
"For us to make a decision of this magnitude … we actually do need to consult with our public, because we've been asked to hand over, in our case, over $90 million worth of assets," she said.
Riesterer said she and Ōpōtiki councillors were taking a very careful approach to the reform and some of the figures and rationale that sat behind it. "That is not to say that there isn't a need for some sort of reform … I think there is clear agreement on the formation of an independent water authority and I think that will provide national focus on our services and resilience in the face of climate change and population growth.
She said the Ōpōtiki district had invested in infrastucture and had good quality drinking water in town but she had concerns for small communities and single households on private supplies as those connections made up about half of the district's water supplies.
Kawerau District Council has commissioned an independent review of the three waters reform proposal from international consultants Castalia, the results of which will be shared with the community.
Mayor Malcolm Campbell said the review was commissioned to ask two specific questions:
- Will the Kawerau council district and residents be better off under three waters reform?
- Are there significant risks to council should it decide to opt out of the three waters reform programme?
Councillors held a workshop to discuss the initial findings on Tuesday, but Campbell said no decisions had been made to opt in or opt out.
"When change is warranted and the outcomes stand up to scrutiny we would always support it, whether it is a reform or a change of practices. We sought an independent review as we had concerns about the modelling being taken from the Water Commission for Scotland and comparing that to New Zealand, and specifically to Kawerau."
"There were also concerns with the data and assumptions used in its analysis by the government's Department of Internal Affairs-funded Tuhura Partners."
"We have always intended, no matter the results, to share this information with our community. We also want to gather feedback from residents with their thoughts, issues and concerns regarding the reform," Campbell said.
Meanwhile, retired farmer and Whakatāne ratepayer 84-year-old Doug Bull, with the support of others who are concerned about the reforms, has published an open letter to the community in local papers urging people to exercise their democratic rights to have their say, not just to councillors but also to their MPs.
"I've had discussions with about 30 people, but each of those people have talked to other people and there is a groundswell of doubt about these reforms," Bull told the Beacon this week.
During August and September, councils are undergoing an eight-week period of engagement with the proposed reforms, the modelling of which is the result of three years of work by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. During this time, they are being encouraged by the ministry to provide feedback on the proposal but not make any formal decision about opting in or out of the scheme, until the ministry has had a chance to respond to their feedback.
The ministry's website states: "Councils are not expected to make any formal decisions regarding the reform through this period. This period does not trigger the need for formal consultation."
Bull thinks councils should be consulting with the public before they give their feedback to the ministry, not afterwards.
"It's the cart before the horse," he said. "The council is accountable to the local ratepayers not to the Government. I understand that, in the Local Government Act, it states that local authorities are to consult with their ratepayers before they make any major decisions, which these would be," Bull said. "Having the Government tell them they're not to consult is an insult."
Bull said there were a lot of oblique comments being made to people he had spoken to along the lines of, 'well, if you think you're going to opt out, we'll just change the legislation or we'll just mandate'.
"What sort of story is that for ministers to be giving to councils? I don't know whether you'll find this in writing but having talked to a lot of councillors as to what's going on in the local authority surroundings it is a murky sort of a pathway they're pushing."
Bull believes a huge number of councils around the country are planning to opt out and the prevailing view is that councils should force the government to make the decision themselves and enforce it on the people of New Zealand.
"When the wheels come off this project, if councils just roll over and say, 'yes, we'll go along with you,' the flak is going to fall on the shoulders of the councillors that are there today. Because it will go wrong, there's nothing surer than that, I can tell you that now. They can't even organise vaccinating five million people. How the heck will they organise getting water to five million people?"
Bull believes that a three waters system that is based on a Scottish model, as this one is, would not be a good fit for this country. "That's a hell of a different country to New Zealand, much more densely populated.
"I would certainly be advocating at this stage that people should be speaking to their MPs so they can be given a clear understanding that people are uncertain and very uncomfortable from lack of knowledge.
Bull agrees that local councils do have issues raising the money required for major infrastructure schemes like sewerage, potable water, stormwater and floodwater, but doesn't think centralising is the answer.
"I'm die-hard against centralisation; I don't think that's the way to go. All the decision making is going to be done away from our region. My biggest fear is the loss of democracy. We can't have a say in what is going on around us. I believe that is just totally off.
"At the moment, whilst I might not agree with everything that's done, I can pick up the phone and ring a councillor that you know or a regional councillor that you know. If I get really agitated, I can ring the local paper."
He gave the example of central government funding for the Ōpōtiki mussel farm as a better model to fund projects.
"That's a huge effort by local community and industry to get the mussel farm going. Here's a case of money being thrown into a community deal that's going to do a hell of a lot of good and has allowed them to get the thing off the ground. That could be done all over New Zealand, as local authorities say they need a new sewerage scheme, and that could be done at half the cost of what this government has proposed to do with the centralisation.
He said as well as consultation, there needed to be more clear information about the proposal.
"There are so many reforms happening, and they all overlap. There is a regulation coming in that will require about 700,000 private water streams to be registered and then regulated by some government authority, which I understand is already set up. Look at the cost. If a farmer has three houses on his farm, then he's got to supply water to three other entities that have to be registered.
"How can a farmer, busy calving his cows, at a peak worktime of the year, how can he possibly hope to keep up with it. Why the hell is an 84-year-old farmer the one who has been asked to get these things going."
What is Three Waters Reform?
The government has made a case to change the way three waters - stormwater, wastewater and drinking water - are delivered to New Zealanders.
Currently local councils own and operate those services.
Launched in July 2020, the government proposes changing the three waters service delivery arrangements by 1 July 2024.
The government have created a model of four publicly-owned entities to take over the delivery of these services over different geographical areas of New Zealand.
The Eastern Bay would fall into Entity B, which includes Whakatāne, Kawerau and Ōpōtiki districts and 19 others, Thames-Coromandel, Hamilton, Hauraki, Matamata-Piako, Waikato, Waipa, Waitomo, South Waikato, Stratford, Taupō, Tauranga, Western Bay of Plenty, Rotorua Lakes, New Plymouth, Otorohanga, Rangitikei, Ruapehu, South Taranaki and Whanganui.
This entity would have a board of six representatives for all of these local councils and six representatives for mana whenua (Māori authorities over the land).
The government has said that grouping the services into larger entities would create efficiencies and borrowing ability that would save ratepayers money as the country strives to meet and will give Māori greater involvement in decision making.
Currently, district councils are being asked to look at the proposal and offer feedback on it. They have until the end of September to do this. No decisions to opt in or out of the entities are required during this time.
The government is also engaging directly with iwi across the country.
Following this period of engagement, the government will make decisions on next steps in the reform process including mechanisms for community consultation.
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.