3 Waters Debacle reflects failed past local governance organisation

The Labour government has, with considerable merit, proposed a reorganisation of the local government management of water, along with a general review of LG functions. Few councils in the last 30 years with the exception of Auckland have done a good job of managing 3 Waters infrastructure. The problem is that in creating larger councils from smaller ones in 1989 and rolling a wide ranging group of separate local entities into these bodies, the government has made a rod for its own back in attempting to address the glaring failures of politicians to ensure all of the functions were properly performed. In the city of Christchurch, the wastewater and stormwater management was in the hands of the separate Christchurch Drainage Board, and should have remained in their control, instead of the outcome where City Council politicians such as Vicki Buck succeeded in their quest of taking over as many local functions as they could. So the Drainage Board and for a short time the Transport Board were among those local entities that were swallowed up into the Christchurch City Council in 1989 when Buck was elected as the first mayor of the newly enlarged CCC. However, the public transport network itself became a management function of Canterbury Regional Council and has remained as such ever since.

The local government reorganisation of Auckland in 2010 should be considered a prototype for the rest of New Zealand. Three Waters functions were placed under the control of Watercare with enough independence to ensure significant transparency of the management of this vital infrastructure. Likewise, other key functions like transport and the Port have been kept independent from Auckland Council itself. Of course, elected Auckland Council politicians have made incessant criticism of this structure, with constant lobbying of central government to get more control over AT and other bodies, in the same way as CCC has continued lobbying for the takeover of public transport in Christchurch. The megalomanial characteristics of these activities must be taken in to consideration as politicians’ key motives simply cannot be trusted to produce inherently better outcomes.

The Government however has a fairly major task ahead of itself in separating 3 Waters assets from direct control of the larger councils as seen by the grandstanding taken so far in Christchurch. Politicians instigated the City’s withdrawal first of all from a territorial water management forum and are now pushing to cancel the Council’s membership of Local Government New Zealand. These measures are far in excess of those seen anywhere else in New Zealand to date. A great deal of what has gone down so far is politically masterminded by the National Party against the Labour government and has little to do with the actual merits of the national 3 Waters improvement programme, the work on which began under the Key/English National administration. However it is imperative that some form of change in the management public water infrastructure is proceeded with and the ineptitude of the Government to date is very telling although unsurprising. This is largely due to the way Labour kowtows to local government and can be seen in the fact some of their own members are making the most antagonistic noise against the current proposals.

If there is to be any progress on this matter the government will have to stop the silly TV advertising and get some real work done with their proposed local government reorganisation. Given the number of reviews which have taken place and been poorly or barely implemented, this one needs to be given a much greater impetus and be well in hand by the next election otherwise it will never happen for another generation. As the government has already dropped the ball in a major way with public transport, having burned through a great deal of political capital with no meaningful outcomes in Auckland light rail, Let’s Get Wellington Moving or Christchurch suburban rail proposals, it must somehow grow a spine and pull a rabbit out of a hat if it really is determined to fix 3 Waters. The Auckland model shows the most sensible way of making this happen and given that any type of local government reorganisation is contentious and takes a while to implement, the government really has to find some way of expediting this in short order.