Canterbury councils confident of gathering support for Three Waters legal challenge

By Adam Burns of RNZ

Community leaders in Canterbury say they are confident of gathering enough support in the regions for a legal challenge to Three Waters.

Both the Timaru and Waimakariri district councils have filed an application in the Court of Appeal after the High Court dismissed a claim on asset ownership declarations earlier this year.

Justice Mallon ruled in February the councils' attempt to seek the declaration, in effect, sought to influence the legislative process, a breach of the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty.

Both councils are part of the 30 local bodies which make up the government action group Communities 4 Local Democracy (C4LD).

The Government's plan to shift management of three waters assets from 67 local councils to four large regional purpose-built entities - with the aim of having greater borrowing clout - has been the subject of heated debate since the programme was officially launched back in 2021.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty announced changes to the controversial reform plan this week, with the four proposed entities to be replaced by 10 regional bodies.

Timaru district mayor Nigel Bowen said they would be seeking support from other "like-minded" councils.

He expected the cost of the appeal to be about $200,000 and would not get a hearing date until next year.

"We believe that although we benefit, it's for the wider benefit of New Zealand," he said.

Bowen said he disagreed the changes to the reform plan offered greater local voice.

"The local voices (point) is an interesting one, it's certainly different across the country. For Timaru, we're one of 14 councils (in the Canterbury/West Coast entity).

"Might be different for Taranaki where there are three councils, but you throw in another 14 mana whenua representatives and what does local voice actually look like."

The Whangārei District Council was also part of the original legal challenge to the High Court.

The district's mayor Vince Cocurullo said he believed there were grounds for the ruling to be overturned.

When asked if his council would join appeal proceedings, he said he was "currently in discussions".

Cocurullo said the Government did not alert him to "Better Off" funding plans for councils being scrapped, a move he described as "disgusting".

The Better Off package was to provide $1.5 billion to councils from the new entities' debt, which would free up the same amount for the entities "to invest in their community drinking water, wastewater and stormwater networks", rather than shoring up council coffers.

The first $500m phase of the Better Off package would continue under current funding arrangements, as would the $500m No Worse Off package to ensure councils did not suffer financially as a result of the reforms.

Cocurullo said his district did not need water reform, but the same can't be said for other territories.

"There are areas around New Zealand where they need to take ownership, one of them is Wellington" he said.

"Whangārei has actually done it's supposed to have done, in accordance with the Local Government Act, and actually looked after the assets of the community."