From The Hutch
When I hear mention of the government’s Three Waters Reform Programme, for some weird reason I’ve been flashing back to the 1993 movie Demolition Man.
The movie stars Sandra Bullock as a clean-cut cop from a clean-cut future. Sylvester Stallone plays the part of John Spartan, a bad-ass cop from the past who has been thawed out from the cryogenic prison he was sentenced to in 1996. His job is to take down Wesley Snipes – a violent criminal, also from the past.
It’s a movie which essentially rebels against society’s rapid slide into PC perfection – the loss of freedom of expression in favour of intolerance towards crime, sickness, imperfection etc.
One scene features poor old John Spartan emerging from the loo complaining that there is no toilet paper, only three seashells.
Everyone else around him laughs because he doesn’t know how to use the three seashells. The purpose of the three seashells have never been explained as far as I know, but they must be better because it’s the future.
Disturbingly this movie is set in 2032, just 11 years from now. The creators of the movie might have been a little optimistic in predicting cryogenics would be fully developed by 1996, but like a lot of movies of the day, it was more about smashing things.
A bit murky
This week the government decided it isn’t going to talk to local councils or the public any more – with the exception of select committee hearings – it is simply going to take water assets away from councils and vest them with four large organisations.
At least we know what the Three Waters are; drinking water, waste water and storm water. After that it all gets a bit murky.
In order to fully understand where government is going with all this, I headed to the threewaters.govt.nz website.
The first thing I’m confronted with is local government minister Nanaia Mahuta smiling with all the sincerity of someone who has just bitten the head off a chicken.
The website appears to have been designed by children, for children, with the exception of Nanaia’s smiling face, so I feel like I’m in the right place, even if the choice of font and colours is offensive.
There are some big numbers being thrown around, some of which must be adjusted for inflation and spread out over 30 years.
The government says it is doing this because it doesn’t want anyone getting sick from their drinking water and councils have not been doing enough to replace the pipes and other infrastructure which is rapidly deteriorating.
Many small communities simply cannot afford water schemes that conform to drinking water standards.
We need to be spending about $5 billion a year on infrastricture upgrades and that isn’t happening, presumably because councils are hamstrung by public sentiment when it comes to big rates increases.
Underlying all of this is the complete intolerance for poor drinking water and associated water-borne illnesses like campylobacter. In fact, the origin of these reforms was in 2016 when an estimated 8000 people in Havelock North contracted campylobacter from the drinking water. Four people died and others were left permanently disabled.
So it’s serious stuff, but is bigger really better when it comes to infrastructure?
The Government thinks so, and is promising to do the fix-up job for a fraction of what it would cost local councils to do it.
Too good to be true
For example, the government claims water bills in the Tauranga City Council area would rise to $3060 per year for each household by 2051, but a big new entity that includes Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Taranaki could do it for just $1220 (cheaper than what it costs now).
In the case of Western Bay of Plenty District Council, the figures are $4050 and $1220 respectively.
That almost seems too good to be true, and I still can’t fathom how the economies of scale and better financing options will result in a 70 per cent reduction in costs.
I would have thought the main cost of replacing pipes was the pipes, the machines and the labour. Any big new entity will still only have access to the same civil contractors that are avalable to councils now.
It’s pretty difficult to argue against the stated aims of these reforms, but it’s also difficult to understand how a larger beuracracy is going to deliver results cheaper and faster than solutions created by local communities.
I’m sure the answer won’t take as long as the sea shells story to emerge, but it sure smells funny at the moment.