Local Government New Zealand supports the government’s bid to reform the country’s three waters but is calling on it to adopt four policy principles first.
“We welcome the current review. We are very aware of the need for it. However. we know from experience that policy decisions that are made the wrong way, on the wrong evidence or too hastily can have perverse outcomes,” said LGNZ President David Cull.
The government announced a review of how to improve the management of drinking water, stormwater and wastewater in the wake of a 2016 water contamination incident in Havelock North which affected thousands of people. The first recommendations are expected in mid-2019.
LGNZ is calling on the government to fix drinking water first. “The government needs to set hard drinking water standards, and establish a regulator to police these standards,” it said.
The Havelock North incident identified two key weaknesses – poor standards and lax regulatory oversight, Cull said.
LGNZ says it supports reform that establishes hard line drinking water standards and a legislative requirement for all councils to meet them. It also advocates for a strong role for the drinking water regulator to ensure those standards are met.
Secondly, LGNZ says that existing regulation should run its course. Amendments made in 2017 to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management introduced new requirements that must be in place by 2025.
“Water and stormwater assets are long-lived and it takes many years of planning and investment to change performance outcomes,” the association said.
“Much of the planning and investment work is already underway and on track to meet these higher standards in regional plans,” it said.
“Local government advocates for letting this work run its course before introducing new quality measures.”
Thirdly, it said that mandatory aggregation should be taken off the table. The government is considering whether the water services currently supplied by local government should be merged into a number of larger jointly-owned entities to help both fund and ensure the quality of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater services.
LGNZ said it is not opposed to aggregation but it should only be applied on a case-by-case basis. “Local government strongly opposes mandatory aggregation of water assets as one-size-fits-all policymaking,” it said.
It noted the assets are owned by their respective communities and not by central government. “It is these communities who are best placed to make decisions about how they structure their assets” and community buy-in is vital.
Finally, it says central government should focus on getting the incentives right to drive behaviour.
“Strong quality standards across all three waters, coupled with rigorous enforcement, create a strong incentive to lift performance in a way that encourages innovation and places the least cost burden on communities.