Calls for Hutt ‘referendum’ on 3 Waters

A number of residents have emailed councillors asking for a referendum on the government’s proposed 3 Waters reform. This is how I replied to them:

Just by way of quick re-cap on Hutt City Council actions to date.  When last year the four new water service entities were proposed, we had legal advice that as a Council we could not ‘opt in’ or ‘opt out’ on such a crucial issue without formal consultation with our residents.  We waited to see the final form of the proposals so that we could do that consultation, and perhaps even hold a referendum.   Then came the disappointing news the government had decided to make the reforms mandatory. 

Officers have told me a rough estimate to hold a referendum in Lower Hutt is $185,000 – or $50,000 if we did it as part of the local body (postal vote) elections in September/October.  Given that even if a referendum showed substantial majority opposition to the 3 Waters reform in the Hutt, the government is NOT going to change its mind, I don’t really see the point of such expenditure.  (HCC has already ran a consultation exercise in April/May which drew 774 responses – 46% opposed to the new ‘mega’ water entities; 38% in support; 16% neutral/don’t know.) 

In could be argued that the ‘referendum’ that really matters on the 3 Waters reforms will happen with next year’s general election.  The National Party has said a number of times it will repeal and replace the government’s reform legislation. 

What Hutt councillors can do in the meantime is put in a strong submission to the current Select Committee process hearing the Water Services Entities Bill suggesting improvements. We’re debating that this week, before the July 22 submissions deadline, and if you have suggestions or feedback I’d love to hear it (  

 In reality, a submission that just says “we’re against it”, without saying what would be better, will be ignored. 

My major concern with the Hutt being put into ‘Entity C’ is the gross dilution of local accountability and the ability of residents to have a direct and meaningful say in water infrastructure investment and priorities.   I would rather have seen an expanded Wellington Water set-up to get on to the backlog of necessary infrastructure upgrades and retention of that closer accountability.  However,  the information from the Water Infrastructure Commission Scotland (peer reviewed by two international accounting firms) was that the quantum of savings from economies for scale are best achieved by four new entities of the size proposed. 

Quick thoughts on three aspects of the reforms (and again, open to your feedback): 

  • “They’re stealing ratepayers’ assets”.  Are our reservoirs, treatment stations and many hundreds of kilometres of (ageing, leaking) pipes really assets (other than in terms of book value, and the ability to borrow against) given that pretty much NOBODY is in favour of selling/privatizing 3 Waters infrastructure?  There are very strong safeguards now built in to ensure Entity C cannot sell the infrastructure it will take over (all 22 councils under Entity C would have to unanimously agree, and that would need to be followed by a referendum of citizens and a 75% majority in favour). 
  • Co-governance.  I am in favour of the principle of one person, one vote and I believe representatives on key public bodies should be elected, not appointed.  But I also believe in our partnership under the Treaty of Waitangi, and that Maori have a special interest in water quality issues.  People will make up their own minds on whether it is fair that a section of society comprising 17% of our population will have 50% representation on the 3 Waters Regional Representation Groups. For my part I don’t feel it is a big issue in this case – after all, iwi/Maori are just as interested and invested in keeping the cost to families of running these 3 Waters entities to what is affordable. 

  • Lastly, the challenges ahead.  There is a risk Lower Hutt residents could end up subsidizing other regions in Entity C with more significant water issues than ours – the Wairarapa and East Coast’s water shortages/droughts, for example.  But equally, they could end up subsidizing the Hutt. 

    Just to give you a feel for the HUGE 3Waters costs facing our city: 
  • 60% of our pipes are due for renewal in the next 30 years (we’ve budgeted $532 million over the next decade) 
  • The Department of Internal Affairs has forecast that over a 30-year period, $3.02 billion of 3 Waters capital investment in Lower Hutt will be needed (our own officers believe that’s too high) 
  • Revised sea level rise estimates mean underground infrastructure in Petone and other low lying areas could be threatened much earlier than anticipated – perhaps within 20 years. 
  • We’ve budgeted $200 million for a replacement Seaview wastewater treatment plant in the 2030s.  Not only could that be a significant under-estimate, but we may need to do the project earlier, and with climate change we may not be able to rebuild in Seaview. 

Whatever your view on 3 Waters, I think we can agree that ‘doing nothing/the status quo’ will badly backfire on us in the years ahead. 

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