Concerns of the Three Waters: the Council seeks a local entity

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Dunedin City Council is set to present a case for the southern region to retain control of its Three Waters assets.

The dilution of local decision-making power that is expected to result from the government’s continued pursuit of its reform agenda appears to be at the heart of the deep concern.

The council appears ready to argue that the creation of four large water entities to take over the councils’ activities should be “put on hold” while alternative models are considered.

If the government is determined to pursue its preferred model, a smaller regional entity should be considered for Otago and Southland, it is suggested in council documentation.

A draft council submission to government on the Water Services Entities Bill, which would create the planned entities, is due to be discussed by councilors next week.

“A fundamental problem with the government’s proposed model is that entity ownership does not equal representation in governance arrangements,” a council report said.

“This will result in a dilution of a local voice in the new system.”

An Otago-Southland entity would better ensure local representation and would also be better placed to manage land use planning in a thoughtful and meaningful way for local communities, the draft submission argues.

The extent to which the board should express its dissatisfaction with elements of the reform has been one of the most contentious issues of this term.

Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins criticized some aspects, but argued the council should be constructive.

Cr Carmen Houlahan is a councilor who argued the mayor’s response had been “weak”.

The council’s decision to join a Three Waters protest collective was followed by a reversal, after a fallout involving mana whenua, which had suspended its participation in a governance task force.

The overthrow of the council pleased runanga representatives, but the proposed co-governance agreements that include iwi have been a sore point for some critics of the reform nationwide.

The New Zealand Taxpayers Union said the government’s economic case for reform was not building up and the union predicted the Bill “could well reach 100,000 public submissions”.

The government argued that councils are not well placed to invest enough in substantial and necessary infrastructure upgrades and that efficiency would be achieved through economies of scale.

Some aspects of the reform program, such as changes to water regulations, are apparently accepted by most councillors.

“However, the council fundamentally disagrees with the service delivery model proposed under this bill, the haste with which the bill is moving through parliament and the current lack of detail in the bill,” indicates the submission project.

“In the council’s view, there are better ways to achieve the desired results than to have wholesale change involving such large and complex entities where local voices are removed from decision makers.”

Under the government’s model, most territorial authorities within the proposed southern water services entity would not have a representative within a regional representative group.

The council has previously expressed concern that its ability to plan future land use may be compromised.

The bill did not provide any clarity on how competing developments in various areas would be prioritized, according to the draft submission.

The momentum for reform grew out of a water contamination scandal in Havelock North in 2016.

Dunedin Councilor Jim O’Malley is among those who argue reform is needed, but not in the way the government is advocating.

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