Government offers major concessions in water reforms, that will make new water corporations accountable to even the smallest councils – like Chatham Islands.

In Christchurch today, a new national working group of council and iwi leaders is meeting for the first time to redesign the Government’s contentious Three Waters reforms, to provide communities with greater oversight of about $100b of assets.

And even before they sit down with their laptops and coffees, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has offered two major concessions.

She will allow every one of the country’s 67 city and district councils to be represented on the four big new regional water corporations, if that’s what they agree. And she has stripped out an entire layer of bureaucracy between communities and those who decide the future of the country’s waterworks.

The changes to the water reform proposals are contained in an exposure draft of the new Water Services Entities Bill, which is yet to be introduced to Parliament. Instead, Mahuta has asked the working group, comprised of leaders including Auckland Mayor Phil Goff and Ngāti Kahungunu chairman Ngahiwi Tomoana, to review the “exposure draft” bill first.

A number of the mayors on that group have been agitating for greater accountability for the new drinking water and wastewater providers, which the bill reveals will be legally set up as body corporates. That means they, not the councils that own them, will be accountable for their debts.

Previously, Mahuta has said each of the four water authorities would have 12 members on its regional representative group: six council representatives and six iwi representatives. Now, the Government has drafted the bill to allow each corporation to decide how many it will have; anywhere from a minimum of six members (three council and three iwi) up to 44 members, in one case.

Clause 24 of the draft bill allows a water corporate to have one local authority representative for every council that is a shareholder in its assets; so for the northernmost corporation, that would be just four, because it comprises just four councils Far North, Whangārei, Kaipara and Auckland.

But the Taranaki-Waikato-Bay of Plenty “Entity B” corporation, which is comprised of 22 councils, would be allowed 22 local authority representatives, matched by 22 mana whenua members. That’s 44 in total.

And the most sprawling of the corporations “Entity C”, includes 21 councils – running right from East Cape down through Hawke’s Bay to Wellington, and across the Cook Strait to Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough, and out across 800km of ocean to the Chatham Islands. That corporation would be allowed 21 local authority representatives, matched by 21 mana whenua members.

This morning, Chatham Islands Mayor Monique Croon welcomed the change, and said she would want the Chatham Islands Council represented on that representative group.

“Our worst concern around the proposed entity was that being the smallest rural council, our Three Water needs would get lost in terms of the schemes of priorities around, say, metro councils,” she said.

“So I think it’s a good thing to be part of that body, and to be able to put forward and keep making sure that our community’s needs are met through the entity.”

In one of the biggest cities, Hamilton, mayor Paula Southgate also welcomed the changes. “It now looks like there is an openness to be more flexible,” she said. “That’s important to our council, because we’ve always said that we don’t support the current proposal to take the assets completely off councils.”

Hamilton mayor Paula Southgate:  “In my opinion, big groups don’t always function effectively.” Photo: Supplied

She too said she would “absolutely” expect her council to be represented on the regional representative group.

If it is the case that every council expects to be represented, then the sizes of most representative bodies will blow out to around 40 members.

“That can be unwieldy,” Southgate acknowledges. “In my opinion, big groups don’t always function effectively.”

But New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom had pulled together the views of all 22 councils in the Taranaki-Waikato-Bay of Plenty grouping, she said, and presented their views to Government. So even with such a big group, a good chair could ensure they got results.

“And that’s what you need to do when you’ve got a large group who have a diverse range of opinions. You can’t hope to land on one point that represents everyone, can you?”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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