23 Sep 2021

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff opposes Three Waters proposal, calls for accountability

7:30 pm on 23 September 2021

Auckland Council is giving the thumbs down to the Three Waters Reform programme, due to concerns that the changes will result in a lack of democratic accountability and control over council assets.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff talking about the Ports of Auckland safety review.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff. Photo: RNZ/Nick Monro

The government is proposing the control of drinking, waste and stormwater systems is taken from the hands of 67 councils and four regional water authorities are put in charge.

A feedback period spanning eight weeks comes to an end on 1 October, where the government asked councils for their thoughts on the proposal.

Councils could not yet choose to opt-in or opt-out of the reforms.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta previously said the reforms were about acting for the greater good, with the aim to have rates payers dish out less on water bills and councils benefiting from long-term infrastructure investment.

During a council meeting held over Zoom today, all but one elected member voted to tell the government they supported the general objectives of the reform, but would not back the governance and accountability arrangements that came with it.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff passionately made one thing clear - the government's reforms would not get his approval under the current settings.

"I can never support something that creates an entity that will not be accountable through elected representatives to the community it serves," he said.

The Auckland region still had residential water restrictions in place following an extended drought.

Goff admitted council-controlled organisation Watercare had not done everything right, but he thought the council's governance role made the entity accountable to the community.

The government is yet to put forward its final proposal.

Goff vowed ratepayers would get their say when it did, calling community consultation was "critical".

Finance Committee chair Desley Simpson was concerned the reform may be mandated.

"I'm certainly not prepared to support handing over in excess of $10b of our assets on behalf of the people of Auckland to get considerably less than 50 percent of governance."

She did not think the model was formulated with Auckland in mind.

"It doesn't seem to have taken into consideration that a third of the country, thanks to central Government legislation, is governed differently."

Simpson said Watercare was already operating at the scale sought for the rest of the country.

A number of councillors spoke of racist rhetoric feedback from ratepayers about what the reforms will mean for Māori control over water.

But Deputy Mayor Bill Cashmore was shocked by the hundreds of emails he had received from people who were not up to speed on the reforms in general.

He said the public did not understand and the government had a big job on their hands to remedy this.

Councillor Wayne Walker said information on the reforms needed to be clearly available on the council's website.

Auckland Council's alternatives

Auckland Council meeting reports proposed alternatives to the proposal that it said would meet the government's objectives.

Council asked the government to consider providing financial support to Watercare, such as guaranteeing Watercare debt, to allow greater levels of investment. This would maintain the council-controlled organisation framework with democratic accountability.

Three Waters Reform Programme executive director Allan Prangnell said the government had indicated its willingness to consider alternatives if the current proposal could be improved while keeping within the reform's bottom lines of good governance, balance sheet separation and partnership with mana whenua.

"There are possibilities that could be further explored including how representation in the governance model is determined, how board appointments are made, and how accountability can be strengthened."

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