West Coast mayors have 'heartening conversation' over water reform fears

7:49 am on 27 March 2023
Kieran McAnulty

Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty met with West Coast mayors last week. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The West Coast councils have met with the local government minister to air their concerns about the impact of water reforms in some of the most isolated parts of the country.

Each district has its own concerns - Westland doesn't want to lose its council-controlled organisation which repairs its flood-damaged roads, while Grey has concerns over the loss of ownership and oversight of its water assets and Buller has water infrastructure in desperate need of investment that its council can't currently afford.

Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty and Department of Internal Affairs officials met with the mayors of Buller, Grey and Westland and the councils' chief executives last week, to hear their concerns over the proposed water reforms.

Under Three Waters, the West Coast falls into entity D along the majority of the South Island, excluding Nelson, Marlborough and Tasman.

Grey District Mayor Tania Gibson said after the meeting it appeared the government might be looking at "tinkering around the edges of the entities" and despite voicing the district's concerns, she was not hopeful of major changes to the proposed reforms.

"Our concerns are of course localism and ownership and the flawed share model where we don't actually have any say, or any oversight, or the shares mean nothing or have no value.

"That's where our concerns have definitely been coming from, our ratepayers paid for these assets and that's what we've been saying all along."

Gibson said the Grey District's water assets were in good condition and the council would prefer to "go it alone" with a subsidy model and a different rate for councils that needed more investment.

"We need to get those councils up to speed and we also have work to do, we don't want to be left behind."

In Westland, Mayor Helen Lash said the council appreciated the ability to have a frank discussion with McAnulty.

"It was quite a heartening conversation, not because we think we're going to get things changed, but he really does understand the Coast and he is concerned about where it fits in with this."

Westland's main concern was losing its council-controlled organisation Westroads - which looks after repairs to the drinking water, waste water and stormwater networks, but also deals with roading issues, washouts and slips during flood events.

"We've got one of the longest geographical regions in the country, we've got a team based in Fox and Whataroa as well as Hokitika, so you take that entity out and we are left very isolated and very much at risk for the other situations that happen to which we use them for.

"Our big fear is that the big centres will be dealt with first and will be left."

Lash said one of the worst parts of the reform was the ongoing uncertainty. She would be happy if the wastewater and drinking water are separated out - but she didn't want to see any changes to council-controlled organisations or stormwater infrastructure without individual assessment.

"We still can't really plan, I mean, you look at rates, what do you do with depreciation as far as your water infrastructure goes - is it in, is it out? Who's going to own it, if they are going to own, it we can take it out."

Buller is in a different category - it needs urgent investment in its water infrastructure - but questions remain over how it will be funded.

Mayor Jamie Cleine said the three councils were in different positions and each understood that.

Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine gives a briefing in Westport on flooding in the region.

Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine. Photo: RNZ / Nate Mckinnon

"Buller has got a large infrastructure gap, somewhere in the vicinity of 35 to 50 million over the next 20 or 30 years is required to bring us up to compliance, even without considering some of our resilience, climate change related challenges."

Grey and Westland district councils are part of Communities 4 Local Democracy, while Buller is not.

"They respect our position, they agree that we do have quite a challenge in terms of affordability, so that's our reasoning, we are going to need external support and we've stayed politically neutral because of that."

Cleine said Buller's most pressing water infrastructure issue was the slip and storm damage to its primary water intake and catchment area at Giles Creek last February.

While some work had been done - the council needed to invest in long term solutions to ensure the water supply was resilient.

"We're still really lacking the necessary funding to advance securing that supply."

Cleine said its stormwater network was also undersized for the current climate and development in the region.

"There's there's no solution to some of that except digging up a whole lot of streets and spending, tens of millions of dollars."

The other concerns in Buller were ensuring there was fair representation of their district and opposition to the transfer of council-controlled organisations to the government.

Cleine said it all came back to affordability - whether it was the current model of reform, a different model, or a different government with a different model - but Buller District Council was prepared to work with it.

"The reality is we're already sending people in Westport a bill for over $1000 for drinking water and close to $1000 for wastewater, so they're paying $2000 a year now for those services and think within a relatively short time, within five years they'll be paying closer to $4000 for water services."

"Ultimately, we have a big problem here in Buller that needs to be solved somehow ... and I don't see how that happens without some form of reform or external support of some sort."

He said Buller District Council were contemplating borrowing $1.5m in order to hold its water rates this year and several projects were on hold until the outcome of the reforms were known.

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