New Zealand’s local and regional councils were given until August 31 2020 to sign up to a ginormous fund that would help them improve their water, wastewater, and stormwater systems.
It’s a truly massive carrot paired with a sizeable regulatory+governance stick.
Part of it is a regional funding package to strongly encourage (ahem) cooperation between local councils and regional councils.
Now before you all cry out ‘what about me’, each authority’s national allocation is based on:
You can see the whole big Three Waters Reform package on the Department of Internal Affairs site here.
Starting in the Havelock North water outbreak in 2016, which left four people dead and 5,500 pretty sick, the work is also going to keep more regional jobs.
Now, here comes the stick. All Councils – which own and manage most treatment plants and 90% of NZ’s drinking water – are set to be stripped of their roles. Water provision will be taken over by a small number of publicly-owned super-regional entities. We’d heard murmurings of this from Minister Mahuta early in the term. The Productivity Commission had similar recommendations last year.
Now, the agreements bind Councils to take the money and agree (no sign-up = no money), but their stuff-ups now have to face a water quality regulator:
Particularly in the provinces, there has been a systemic failure of water suppliers to meet the standards of safe water supply to New Zealanders: 34,000 people across the country become ill from drinking their water every year.
But there’s more to do.
We also need a water pricing regulator, as I called for a couple of years ago.
Then there’s Auckland. I haven’t seen Auckland try to sign Watercare up to this yet. It must be sorely testing Ministerial patience not to nationalise Watercare, integrate Northland (which has about the collective water demand of two Auckland suburbs Henderson and Massey), and further expand its management of the Waikato system, to ensure we don’t get the crisis in Auckland’s water that we now face going into summer 2010-21.
A move on Watercare would strip about a third of Auckland Council’s asset base, so it’s up to Auckland’s council to really make effective governance moves on Watercare rather than the very mild CCO review they are running. Watercare’s exec team and Board need ‘assistance’, sure, but actually it’s Mayor Goff that’s in very deep water trouble.
The high level politics of water has a clear pattern. I see odds on of NZ maybe 6 water suppliers within next term: that’s their mega pattern in health and tertiary education as well, and NZTA are already the transport masters of all our councils. Minister Mahuta also appears to have kicked Treaty of Waitangi Article 2 considerations into next term, at least.
There’s also national environmental standards for wastewater discharges. Regional Councils such as Canterbury and Southland will be in the government’s cross hairs next term if the groundwater and river nutrient pollution levels don’t markedly improve. Neither Parker nor Mahuta have any patience left with them.
So this is not the last hard discipline from Labour to Councils: they are tired of waiting for regional councils in particular to get it together, so they have brought the cash, but they are now carrying a large stick as well.