David Langford: Three Waters and local government reform – how do you see the future of Whanganui?

Infrastructure Minister Grant Robertson and Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced in April that the government would continue its Three Waters reforms. Photo/Mark Mitchell

OPINION:

Massive changes will occur in the communities of Aotearoa over the next two to three years as the central government pursues a major program of reforms.

I want to make it clear that these are run by central government, not local councils – the reforms are made for us, not by us.

There has been much debate over the Three Waters reform proposals, but did you know that the government is carrying out a much broader reform agenda? These include health reform, legislation to replace the Resource Management Act, a new national waste strategy and a review of the future of local government.

Those of you who have followed the events will know that the Three Waters Reform was discussed at the March 22 Whanganui District Council meeting. At this meeting, the Council formally decided that it opposes the current Three Waters reform proposal. This was unanimously supported by all councillors.

When we talk about the Three Waters reforms, it is essential that we also talk about all the other reforms so that we do not allow the government to accidentally create a new system that does not meet the needs of our communities.

If you haven’t been following so closely, you might be wondering why all the fuss. So here is a brief summary of what the central government is offering.

Three Waters: The government’s proposal is that local councils will no longer provide drinking water, waste water and storm water services. Instead, they want four new organizations to provide these services nationwide – something like the way power companies operate. These new organizations will still be owned by councils, but almost all decisions will be made by professional boards.

The government believes that these large organizations will be able to borrow more money and achieve efficiency savings to pay for the infrastructure upgrades that are needed. However, the council fears that these efficiencies will remove local decision-making, particularly if the new water services organization locates its headquarters in a major center like Hamilton or Tauranga, away from Whanganui. When decisions are made remotely, important things like Te Awa Tupua and the Whanganui River Settlement can be overlooked.

We are also concerned that because Whanganui’s water infrastructure is in relatively good condition, our community will end up paying for upgrades and repairs in other parts of the country.

Resource Management Act: The government is abandoning the Resource Management Act (1991) and plans to replace it with three new laws: the Natural Built Environment Act, the Strategic Planning Act and the Climate Adaptation Act. One of the main changes proposed by the government is that local councils will no longer produce district plans to guide urban development. Instead, the government wants to set up new committees that will be responsible for making strategic plans at the regional level.

Many of the proposed changes are well-intentioned and aimed at better protecting the environment while facilitating residential development and home building. But the council fears that the needs of smaller districts will be ignored and that big city priorities will dominate these new regional plans.

Review of the future of local government: There are no firm proposals from the central government yet. The review committee asks these five key questions before preparing a proposal:
• How should the local government system be reshaped so that it can adapt to future challenges and enable communities to thrive?
• What are the future functions, roles and key features of the local government system?
• How could a local government system best embody genuine partnership under Te Tiriti o Waitangi?
• What needs to change for local government and its leaders to best reflect and respond to the communities they serve?
• What should change in the financing of local authorities to ensure viability and sustainability, justice and equity?

For some people, change can feel threatening and that’s understandable – I have concerns too. For example, will decision-making on issues that affect Whanganui be transferred to people or organizations in Wellington, Palmerston North or Hamilton? And what will happen to our local voice?

On the other hand, I also see these reforms as a unique opportunity to shape a better future for Whanganui. We can ensure that good quality infrastructure is well maintained and that local councils and government agencies provide the right services to ensure everyone is supported to get the most out of life.

As our board ponders how best to influence the government to achieve the best possible results for Whanganui, it reminds me of whakatauki: Mā whoro, ma pango ka oti ai te mahi.

Roughly translated, it means “when the rulers and the people are united, the job will be done”. That’s why we launched a consultation survey this week – we want to know what the future of Whanganui should look like. The council will then use this feedback to shape how we influence central government as these reforms are developed.

The survey is online at www.whanganui.govt.nz/haveyoursay

• David Langford is Chief Executive of Whanganui District Council.

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