29 Jun 2021

Whangārei council opting out of Three Waters reform

7:16 pm on 29 June 2021

Whangārei District Council is pulling out of the government's three waters reforms after a scathing debate between elected representatives.

Whangarei's three waters reform workshop - (From left) Kaipara Mayor Dr Jason Smith, Far North Deputy-Mayor Ann Court, Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai and Northland-born Brian Hanna, three waters steering committee independent chair (and former Waitomo District Mayor).

Photo: LDR

The government has so far put $760 million aside for the first stage of the overhaul that will take stormwater, wastewater and drinking water management away from councils.

Whangārei councillors today voted unanimously to provisionally opt out of the programme, the strongest opposition to the government's water centralisation reforms so far.

Council staff who prepared the agenda had already taken shots at the government before the meeting began.

The agenda said the recent cancellation of the four-lane highway between Marsden Point and Whangārei suggested the government was prepared to "walk back" its promises.

It also said the government had withheld data about the water reforms and did not meet "good faith obligations".

Councillor Vince Cocurullo was one of the most dissatisfied with the government's dealings with the council.

"I am very very disappointed with our central government and DIA [Department of Internal Affairs]," he told the meeting.

"I am very disappointed that they have this belief that we will just do what they want us to do."

Fellow representatives nodded as he continued: "How is that fair to our ratepayers? How is that fair to the people who represent this district? How is that fair that a government such as this is behaving like this?"

Councillor Simon Reid, also a member of Northland iwi Ngāpuhi, went even further with criticisms.

"The government has - just over the last 18 months or so - proven to be so unreliable and untrustworthy. I think we have to put our right foot forward and take them on at every opportunity otherwise they are just going to walk all over us."

Councillor Phil Halse also expressed his dissatisfaction with the council's unanswered questions.

"I think this is the most alarming thing that I've seen since I've been a councillor. When we have written to Internal Affairs and out of several requests six of those have been denied - just for information - it's a pretty sad indictment on how we are running the country at the moment."

He feared Whangārei would be put in a new water entity with Auckland, and the supercity would consume all of the entity's attention.

"They're sucking the country dry with requests to government for all the infrastructure - roading, buses, cycle lanes and now this water reform. I think it's time the government realised that you can't operate with one city."

Mayor Sheryl Mai said the council had used funding from ratepayers to invest heavily in water infrastructure in the past.

She was confident the council could continue to provide quality water services without opting for government intervention.

"In the absence of information that shows our ratepayers will be better off by opting in then I do believe that opting out is the correct course," she said.

"It could be that in the future government mandates the process. We may be forced to join in with an entity but I think it would be fair to say today that we would probably go screaming and kicking."

Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby had been talking to the mayor ahead of the meeting and was not surprised by the decision today.

"The provisional decision made by the council is appropriate until they get further information. We are very much aware a lot more information will soon be released."

The government is expected to make a large amount of information on the reforms public tomorrow, with online dashboards, and further clarification is expected next month.

In a statement, the Department of Internal Affairs said tomorrow the public would be able to access modelling showing all communities would benefit from the water reforms.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta confirmed to RNZ she had thought the Whangārei District Council was going to defer a decision on the water overhaul until after the information release.

Now the council has made the move anyway, mayor Sheryl Mai and chief executive Rob Forlong will write to the Department of Internal Affairs to formally withdraw.

Studies released this month forecast New Zealand's water systems would need $120 billion to $185 billion in extra investment by 2051.

Infrastructure failures were exposed by the fatal Havelock North drinking water contamination in 2017.

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