Three Waters: Mayors on both sides of debate anxious about Government's reset

By Craig McCulloch for RNZ

Mayors on both sides of the Three Waters debate are anxious about today's promised reset and exactly what changes the government has made to its reform project.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty will this morning announce their updated strategy for improving the management of drinking, waste and stormwater.

Hipkins sent Labour's initial plan - to transfer local control of water to four new mega-entities - back to the drawing board after a fierce backlash from many councils.

Manawatū Mayor Helen Worboys chairs a grouping of councils protesting Labour's plan and said they had little confidence the government would make sufficient changes to bring them on board.

Worboys told RNZ she had had a constructive meeting with McAnulty several weeks ago but believed "his hands are tied".

"We live in hope, but unfortunately, this looks like it's going to become an election topic, a political football for the elections coming up later in the year."

Worboys said it was vital that any Three Waters alternative preserved councils' ownership and decision-making regarding their assets.

"One size doesn't fit all. We've always asked the government to put the rules in place, put the funding assistance in place, put some backstop enforcement in place, and then let councils and communities sort it out amongst themselves."

She also hoped the government would ditch the co-governance element whereby the entities were responsible to boards with a 50/50 split of iwi and council representatives.

"Councils and communities should be allowed to build that relationship themselves if they haven't already."

New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom told RNZ Labour needed to take a regional approach, with more than just four entities set up around the country.

"Were we in one of these mega-entities, you've got people potentially a long way away making decisions about assets in local communities.

"Traditionally we see money always goes to the big centres, but how does that work for small rural communities?"

Holdom said he had no problem with the co-governance element, but wanted the government to guarantee the entities' borrowing and remove a lot of the extra compliance requirements.

"The government has put these organisations in a total straitjacket. It's absolute overkill and they need to strip it out. They actually need to allow these regional entities to get on and adapt and evolve."

On the other side of the fence, Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan - one of the few vocal supporters of the reform - said he was worried any compromises, such as increasing the number of entities, would undermine the programme.

"We've got to find the most affordable way to do the work that needs to be done," Cadogan said.

"And we've managed - primarily through a lack of clarity - to have got ourselves in a point where maybe there's going to be compromises made, that are going to have a direct impact on [a ratepayer's] already stretched pocket into the future."

Cadogan said the co-governance debate had become a tragic distraction from the "crucial economic and environmental problems" facing the country and today's reset was an opportunity to clear up the muddled messaging.

"No matter what the announcement is, unless they explain why there is a need for reform, it's going to be for naught."

Porirua Mayor Anita Baker said her main concern was that the government's plan continued to cover drinking, waste and stormwater.

"They can't take something like stormwater out, because we're dealing with all our pipes. It needs to be three waters or nothing."

Speaking on Tuesday, Hipkins said the government was focused on fixing the country's water infrastructure deficit.

"Let's call it what it is. It's about making sure we have affordable water infrastructure improvements.

"There is a massive bill coming down the pipeline, if you'll excuse the pun, in terms of upgrading our water infrastructure."