Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta defends Three Waters reforms amid backlash

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has no plans to back down from multimillion-dollar Three Waters reforms despite protesting and backlash from some councils. 

Demonstrators stormed Nelson City Council on Thursday in protest of the reforms, which would see four publicly-owned entities take responsibility from 67 councils for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

It came as councillors met to discuss the reforms and provide feedback to the Government. Nelson City Council has not made a definitive decision to support the reforms, but Auckland Council is firmly against the proposals. 

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said he favoured "sensible reform of the water systems but the model they have put up has some serious flaws", while Whangārei District Council voted to withdraw from the plan. 

Goff is concerned about Auckland subsidising Northland, because under the plans, the Auckland would contribute 92 percent of the proposed entity but could have less than 40 percent representation. 

In light of the backlash, National MPs have been calling on Mahuta to halt the Three Waters reforms and work with councils to figure out what would work best for them. 

Local Government New Zealand has until October 1 to express their concerns to Mahuta. But Local Government NZ president Stuart Crosby said there needed to be "more time to work through the key outstanding issues". 

National MP Barbara Kuriger asked Mahuta in Parliament if she would consider pausing the reforms given Local Government NZ and some mayors, councils, and communities have called for her to do so. 

"No," Mahuta responded. 

"Pausing the conversation around the reform agenda will not change the scale, size, or complexity of the challenge confronting councils. We've provided evidence and research that shows that the looming costs facing councils will be unbearable by ratepayers."

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

A report by the Water Industry Commission for Scotland estimated that New Zealand would need to invest between $120 billion to $185 billion on water infrastructure over the next 30 years to meet standards and provide for future population growth.

Department of Internal Affairs modelling showed that even at the more conservative end of estimates, the average household bill for water services could be as high as $1900 to $9000 by 2051. 

The reforms stem from Havelock North's outbreak of gastroenteritis in 2016 where four people died and 5000 became ill, as well as drought in Auckland and old pipes bursting in Wellington.

The Government tried to make the reforms easier for councils by announcing a whopping $2.5 billion package in July to ensure they were not only "no worse off", but "better off" from the restructure of water assets. 

The package came on top of the $761 million committed to the reforms in 2020, and $296 million announced in Budget 2021 for the costs involved with the establishment and transition of the new water entities. 

The four water service entities are scheduled to begin operating in July 2024. It's expected to grow GDP by $14 billion to $23 billion over the next 30 years and create an estimated 6000 to 9000 jobs. 

Under the proposed model, mana whenua will be consulted and have representation, but the Government has confirmed the four entities will remain in public ownership. 

"Pausing the reform discussion will not help to respond to the significant challenges facing councils. Many of New Zealand's communities are dealing with rising costs and unacceptable outcomes from their Three Waters services; that's not good for the health of people or the environment," Mahuta said.  

"The case for change is strong, well canvassed, and generally accepted by most. These challenges have been discussed for more than two decades and it's time to do something about them."