Local government reforms must take place before the Three Waters

REVIEW: John Palmer is a horticulturist whose family has farmed the Waimea Plains for 179 years. He is one of Nelson’s most experienced administrators. He has chaired Air New Zealand, Zespri NZ and Nelson’s Cawthron Trust, among others, and received the Nelson/Tasman Chamber of Commerce’s top award for his commercial leadership roles.

The sweeping changes to the management of our drinking water, wastewater and stormwater in Nelson and Tasman need to be closely examined.

The deal for our advice is that the government takes these assets, worth in our region over $1 billion, in exchange for a small cash payment with the promise of incredible benefits.

This proposal is both unhealthy and dangerous. He is wrong in his assertions due to context, process, structure, efficiency and lack of openness on the part of Minister Mahuta and the government.

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The bill is poor, inappropriate and poses a major threat to the standards of government in an open democracy. To date, public debate has been limited to a single solution. The Scottish model of water services originated from councilors who were selected because they were a classic centralizing model favored by government. Scottish Water is a successful model in its environment, but not the best result for New Zealand.

The obvious political intent from the outset was to build a state-controlled central service, which means that a proper assessment of alternatives is entirely lacking. The clumsy governance structure will ensure that many benefits of centralization will be lost. This proposal has been conveniently attached to an exaggerated whenua mana requirement that is also discourteous to them in how they can contribute.

We all want quality drinking water, preferably looking like the one on the left.


We all want quality drinking water, preferably looking like the one on the left.

Government policy is reform of the Three Waters, local government and resource management law.

These three issues need to be reformed.

There is also no doubt that these three elements are linked and that changing one will affect the other two. An effective approach would be to examine the relevant effects on and between these proposed reforms, to find the best way to sequence the changes to minimize the contagion effect of obtaining double costs by ignoring flow effects.

Of these Three Waters should not be considered until local government reform is well advanced.

It is certain that the councils will be unable to function effectively if Trois Eaux precedes their reform. It makes no economic or commercial sense to allow this to happen.

If the government was truly interested in achieving an optimal community outcome, a starting point would have been to find counterfactual alternatives to the status quo. It requires an open mind on how to get the best results. Capacity is crucial. Bureaucracy is a dead weight for efficiency.

In these days of instant remote access to technology, forming a single large, multi-layered structure as a starting point is madness. It’s clumsy, very inefficient, and sets organizations up for failure.

An aerial photograph of the sewage treatment plant in Wakapuaka, North Nelson.

An aerial photograph of the sewage treatment plant in Wakapuaka, North Nelson.

Good governance is about establishing clear lines of sight between strategy, decisions and results. This structure offers the exact opposite.

Multiple boards are required to seek consensus outcomes and must have a 75% majority on all non-consensus decisions. Because boards of directors are a representative group, they will inevitably work as representatives and not as independent-minded individuals seeking the best results.

There will inevitably be tension between groups, advisory committees and the board between the best community outcome and representation, while expecting the board to provide effective and efficient community service. The Comptroller of the Crown, as servant of the Minister, is the watchdog of all this.

The prospect of communities like ours getting a rational business response when they raise concerns is dim. The representative structure will ensure the predominance of those with the most effective political connections.

It fails all tests of good governance.

Huge central bureaucracy will be a huge impediment to action and efficiency and this is already evident, supported by the Auditor General’s report highlighting the flaws in the structure.

Streamlining local government must precede any water reform so that back-office and technology efficiency is achieved everywhere.

It will then be relatively easy to create a central cash supply function and engineering capabilities to serve the whole country to achieve the benefits identified in the Scottish Water report.

This is why the timing and process of this proposal is so bad.

This proposal is truly terrible for New Zealand and for the future of democracy here. This is a premeditated and dishonest project, misrepresented as urgent, without evidence of practical needs and solutions that would result in a very different response.

I will not accept the appropriation of certain aspects of our community, for a foolish promise.

This whole project contains many elements of this wonderful television sitcom “Yes Minister”. This convoluted structure would have lived up to Sir Humphrey’s best attempts at confusion. My emphatic answer to Three Waters is “No minister”.