Who Owns the Water – Kāpiti councillor reflects

Kāpiti Councillor Jackie Elliott reflects on the threat to Public ownership of Water from the recent Local Government NZ (LGNZ) annual conference held in Christchurch.

The conference had two main themes. As a result, in my opinion, the message was muddled and ambiguous. The first theme ‘Localism’ – LGNZ launched a new concept where Central Government gives back to the 72 Territorial Authorities (Councils) the power to make local decisions about everything we do now and more. We want to be fully funded to be in control of the provision of services as diverse as education and health.

But isn’t this the exact opposite of the messages that have been coming out of LGNZ for the past five years, that Central Government have been increasingly forcing councils to take responsibility for carrying out a huge list of services, monitoring and regulatory roles, without serious funding, and we can’t cope. Ratepayers can’t cope.

I asked, Dr Mike Reid, Governance Advisor for LGNZ, exactly how such a quantum leap from one stance to the other comes about. The answer was, “It was decided by the LGNZ National Council.” So, to be honest, I am none the wiser and certainly I do not remember my council giving any mandate for this radical change in policy. I know each annual conference has a theme, but I suspect this is change for change sake, without any mandate from elected representatives.

So theme number two, Water. The Minister of Local Government Hon Nanaia Mahuta announced it is now going to be Government policy to set up Central Government management and control of all the three waters supply and systems including drinking water, nationwide. Means one thing to me, Privatisation. I am sorry to say ‘I told you so,’ but I did, six years ago when water meters were installed.

“The new system is largely based on the Water control authorities at work in England, Ireland and Scotland,” said the Minister, looking remarkably breezy despite having travelled half way around the planet the previous evening, home from her fact finding tour. Mayor for Christchurch Lianne Dalziel hit the nail on the head when she stood up and asked the Minister why she hadn’t also looked at the Finnish models for sustainable and affordable Water Supply options.

I had hit the same nail on the head minutes earlier too, when I commented to my colleague, “Why the helicopter view of England, Scotland and Ireland? Why not look at Denmark, Norway and Finland as models for the full circle enviro-economy?” I can say things like that. Further, in my opinion, 3 water management is not a silo. It is just one part of a full circle enviro-economy that encompasses food supply, clean energy management, soil protection and sustainable waste management. We know better (or at least we should) than to manage any one of these factors as a silo.

More to the point, isn’t this Government policy the opposite of localism? The driver for this decision by the Coalition Government to centralise water supply, was supposedly the recommendations in the Havelock North Water Enquiry. Yet, the week before I left home, Greater Wellington Regional Council staff had rung me, and asked to inspect the fresh water bore on my property as part of their regional investigation of water infrastructure in accordance with the recommendations in the Havelock North Water Enquiry. Improvements seem well in hand, Minister? It was frankly a poor excuse for privatisation.

How did LGNZ react to the Ministers suggestion? This is where things got interesting. The LGNZ President David Cull, spoke and he assured the Minister that we, ie all of Local Government, all the councils and all of you, were totally behind the proposal. What was the deal done behind closed doors? That the Government would just leave LGNZ alone to carry out their work in their corner of a building in Wellington unfettered and without interruption, for another three years in exchange for the delivery of 72 sated and ambivalent councils?

Kāpiti Councillor Jackie Elliott