Hawke's Bay mayors divided over new water reforms

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little fears key decisions will be taken out of local hands.
Wairoa Mayor Craig Little fears key decisions will be taken out of local hands. Photo credit: RNZ

Hawke's Bay mayors are divided over new water reforms, despite all of them singing from the same song sheet less than six months ago

The breakdown comes as the mayor of Wairoa, an isolated rural district, warns the changes in three waters could spell doom for local government.

Local governments around the country are facing urgent challenges such as natural hazards, climate change and crumbling infrastructure.

So the reforms could take control of drinking, waste and storm water out of local hands and into regional entities.

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little, who lives in one of the most isolated parts of Aotearoa, feared the worst.

"There's not going to be a lot of work for local government," he said.

"So your localism - it will be gone and it will be central government making those decisions that should be made by local people. It's pretty scary."

In November, the region's four mayors issued a joint press release, welcoming the government's three waters project, and 50 million dollars in funding to get them started.

Back then, Little said the funding was welcome, especially when Wairoa needed all the stimulus it could get.

But five months on, he said signing up to the next stage of reforms could lead to the end of local councils.

"If we lose the three waters and then at the moment, we look like we're getting a bit of shortfall from NZTA around roading and then two or three years time, the government might come and say 'well actually, you're not performing very well on your roading because you're not putting enough money into it' and then they say 'well we might look at taking them away off you as well'."

Napier Mayor Kirsten Wise said she still had many unanswered questions.

"There's still a lot of unknowns. We currently still have absolutely no idea about what these new entities might look like, what size they might be, how many of them there will be, we have no idea around the specific cost, benefits and risks to the local councils."

At the other end of the region from Wairoa, Central Hawke's Bay Mayor Alex Walker said the status quo would not work for her district.

"It's very obvious to us that we are going to struggle to do this on our own. The system is not going to allow us to do the job as quickly and as well as probably our communities and the country deserves."

She said the region would be stronger together.

"We know that if we work together as Hawke's Bay we can do it better than what we've got now, and [we] would be very keen to do that. But we don't have enough information about clearly how the national reform will land for our individual communities to truly give an informed response or an informed debate on the rights and wrongs."

Havelock North, in the Hastings district, is where the ideas for reform started after a campylobacter outbreak five years ago killed four people.

Hastings Mayor Sandra Hazlehurst did not want to comment until the next steps of the reform are announced in May.

But she has never spoken against the project.

The four territorial authorities in Hawke's Bay earlier looked at combining its water assets into a council controlled organisation, but this project was put on hold due to the government's reforms.

The Hawke's Bay Three Waters project website stated the region was "ahead of the curve" compared to the rest of the country.

"Because we worked together to commission an independent in-depth assessment of the issues and options for the future of three waters service delivery across the region, we are in a very strong position to represent the interests of Hawke's Bay in our engagement with Central Government through the reform process to solve the challenges that come from regionalisation of three waters services."

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta insisted the government was taking mayors along with it in the planning.

She said someone like Mayor Little needed to have a close look at the details the government has provided.

"I'd invite him to consider fully all the information and modelling that we've presented over the last four years in relation to the cost challenges on local government and it's very much focused on water reform."

Further north in Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz was also keeping an eye on things, but agreed so much was still unknown.

"It is a massive reform, which we're still waiting for clarity from the Government. At this stage, I'm sure every mayor in Aotearoa would say to you we are still unclear on what's happening."