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Local government releases position statement on three waters

LGNZ has released its position statement on three waters at its Quarterly Media Briefing today, calling on the Government to adopt four good public policy principles ahead of any reforms to the three waters sector.

(The briefing is open to media and will be held at LGNZ’s board room, level 1, 117 Lambton Quay, Wellington at 8:45am – call Daniel Webster on 022 524 1217 for assistance.)

Local government believes the principles will be key to achieving the balance between providing New Zealand’s communities with high quality water infrastructure and services that are affordable in the long-term.

Central government is expected to provide high-level direction on its reform work programme later this month. Indicatively the first recommendations from this work programme are expected in mid-2019.

“Local authorities have decades long experience operating and maintaining the country’s three waters infrastructure. We’re also responsible to our communities for the costs of providing this infrastructure. This gives us a unique perspective on how to proceed with reforming the regulations that govern the three waters space,” says LGNZ President Dave Cull.

“That’s why we’re launching this position paper. We understand the public’s urgency to see water standards tightened up after the Havelock North contamination incident. But we also recognise that making regulatory decisions in a hurry can produce unforeseen and costly consequences down the road.”

“The four principles that we’re launching today tap our experience in the three water sector, and would provide an essential framework on which to build a robust regulatory structure to ensure we continue to deliver high quality water services.”

Local government’s four principles:

Fix drinking water first: Havelock North has shown urgent action is needed in the drinking water space, and any reform process should make this a priority. The Government needs to set hard drinking water standards, and establish a strong regulator to police these standards

Let existing regulations run their course: Wastewater and stormwater assets are long-lived, and it takes many years of planning and investment to change performance outcomes. New freshwater quality standards were introduced in 2017, and we should allow efforts to meet these standards to run their course before introducing new requirements.

Take mandatory aggregation off the table: Local government strongly opposes mandatory aggregation of water assets as one-size-fits-all policy making. The economic literature shows aggregation can be an effective tool to produce service delivery efficiencies in some cases, and so needs to be applied on a case-by-case basis, not as a blanket policy for New Zealand.

Incentives matter: Central government should focus on getting the incentives right to drive behaviour. Setting hard quality across all three waters, backed by rigorous compliance enforcement, will force service providers to lift their performance. At the same time it will open the door to innovation, as service providers experiment with different technologies and ownership models to meet these standards.

Mr Cull noted that while there are challenges at the margin, by and large New Zealand’s water system is far from broken. He underscored the sector’s willingness to work with Government to put the appropriate reforms in place.

“As a sector, local government accepts that change is coming to the way we provide water services to our communities. Our 20th century service delivery model cannot cope with current and future population and land use change pressures,” said Mr Cull.

“We’re open to embracing this change with central government by collaboratively working on a range of policy options to deliver the quality of water, be it waste, storm or drinking, that our communities deserve. What we don’t want is a policy fix that fails to recognise the reality that New Zealand is made up of a multiplicity of diverse communities.”

The principles stem from LGNZ’s extensive work on three waters and freshwater policy, through the 3 waters project and more recently, Water 2050.

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