Central control freakery

First they came for the polytechs, took away their independence and imposed central control.

Then they came for the health system and are in the process of imposing not one but two authorities with central control – one for Maori and one for the rest of us.

Now they’re coming for water, taking it from councils and imposing control from four new and much larger authorities.

One supposed benefit of the three waters plan is saving money, which is laughable:

The Taxpayers’ Union is slamming the removal of local democratic control over water assets and says that regional cross subsidisation is a recipe for gold plating and higher costs.

Reacting to the details of the reforms announced this morning, Taxpayers’ Union Executive Director Jordan Williams said:

“The claim this will save ratepayer money is laughable. It will see Auckland water users funding Rolls-Royce water treatment plants in the far north, and force gold plated solutions onto tiny communities. We don’t often say Phil Goff is right, but on this, he is bang on with his warnings.”

“Even worse, these proposals remove the ability of ratepayers to hold the water bodies to account. They’re going to be able to impose huge costs, without being accountable, even indirectly, to the communities who will pick up the bills.”

“The proposed matrix of committee and iwi governance is a bugger’s muddle.”

“The claim that councils will still own the assets is worthless and true in name only. They won’t be able to do a thing to sack or govern the water assets local communities have paid for.”

The Minister said ratepayers would save money. If councils are no longer responsible for three waters they might. But if water charges aren’t levied on ratepayers they’ll be levied on water users or taxpayers.

The bill might come from a different entity but we’ll all still be paying, and almost certainly paying more than we do now.

That is just one reason the proposed water reforms are unconvincing:

While there’s a clear case for change in our Three Waters sector the Government’s plan isn’t compelling, and the model of four regional entities comes with several problems, National’s Water spokesperson Simon Bridges says.

“The problems with Three Waters are complex, National recognises that, and we understand the need for change. But the proposed solution will end up with more problems than solutions.

“The benefits of scale are not convincing. Water services are not like the power grid – they are individual assets that are distanced and difficult to network. Yet the whole premise of four water entities assumes significant scale benefits.

“The result will be large service organisations that won’t work together or create any savings. The last thing New Zealanders need is more bloated bureaucracies.

“We have yet to see a thorough implementation plan. How will the water assets of communities like Kaikōura and Bluff, some 800km apart, be practically networked and merged into one entity?

“Ratepayers face losing local control of the assets they’ve paid for over generations, while being asked to foot the bill for poorer-performing neighbours – all while getting no guarantee that the service will materially improve,” Mr Bridges says.

Local Government spokesperson Christopher Luxon says meanwhile the Government’s relationship with councils is unravelling by the day.

“Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s officials have been busy eroding any goodwill from councils, running negative ads claiming councils are doing a bad job managing Three Waters and refusing their requests for information. Mayors and councils say they are feeling dumped on and undermined.

“Council confidence is falling. Whangārei District Council has been the first to pull out before the programme has even got off the ground. The mayors of Auckland, Christchurch and Napier are making the same sounds.

“The reforms were designed to be voluntary for councils but if more continue to opt-out, there is a very real risk the Minister will make participation compulsory and force councils to surrender their water assets.

“National supports a water regulator with greater power to set and enforce standards.

“We believe we should be enhancing Three Waters capability and incentivising change where it is led locally and able to happen organically – not mandated by the Beehive.

“These reforms are showing the same ‘we know best’ attitude and amalgamation agenda that we’ve seen from the Labour Government in vocational education and DHBs. Change must be led by councils and communities,” Mr Luxon says.

The water reforms, like those imposed on polytechs, punish the good performers.

There is a better way than central control freakery:  leave the good performers to carry on as they are and  help the under-performers follow the examples of those councils that are doing so much better.

While doing that, require auditing of local authorities to not only look at finances but infrastructure too. That way repairs, maintenance, upgrades and replacements won’t be able to be overlooked in favour of other less essential, but possibly more politically attractive, projects.

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