“[Local Government Minister] Nanaia Mahuta wants to compel all 67 local councils in the country to centralise their three waters into four new water authorities, establishing, it seems, a new tier of governance. From the meagre specifics available, the water authorities would be under the thumb of central government and would take over all the assets, but few of the liabilities relating to water, drainage and sewerage. What role there would be for democratic input still isn’t clear. While ministers are talking of $2.5 billion of sweeteners to councils to win their cooperation, it is not apparent how maintaining or replacing the huge underground complex of ageing pipes and sewers, many in a much-degraded state, will be paid for over the decades ahead. One assumes that central government doesn’t intend to fund the needed infrastructure upgrade, and that the new water authorities will be given the power to levy users.

It’s the way the reforms are being handled that astonishes me. I was the Minister of Local Government who pushed through amalgamations in 1989, reducing 817 local authorities, boards and special purpose entities to 86. It had taken 113 years to reach that point, and there’d been endless consultation. In the final stages I ensured there was plenty of printed detail on what was proposed, and I did my level best to involve councils, bureaucrats and constituents in the reform process. But I kept well clear of day-to-day decisions on the new entities, believing they should emerge from discussions and negotiations between all the affected local authorities and the Local Government Commission which was led by the able, highly-respected Sir Brian Elwood.

“There is no sign of any similar consultative process under this government. Instead, the current clumsy Minister of Local Government is trying to bullock through a series of changes about which she clearly has slender understanding, and can’t have discussed much with officials or local government leaders.

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