Reform: dead in the water? 

Russ Rimmington

Russ Rimmington

Another local Government leader has voiced his opposition to the Government’s Three Waters plan – as district council mayors talk about referenda on the issue.

Waikato Regional Council chair Russ Rimmington says his council has yet to debate the issue and formulate a view on it – but he knows where he stands.

“I’m strongly opposed,” he said.

For Rimmington the issue has strong parallels with the government’s move to deregulate the energy industry in the 1980s which opened the way for overseas investors.

In the mid-1990s he sided with a strong protest movement which opposed the then Waikato Electricity Authority’s move to enlarge Hamilton’s power company. A third of the shares in the enlarged company were put into the hands of American company Utilicorp.

The arrangement also provided for the establishment of the Wel Energy Trust, a publicly elected body, also holding a third of the shares.

Rimmington was part of a movement which won control of the new Trust, which set about buying all the shares in the company to effectively undo the process started by the now defunct Waikato Electricity Authority. It won the fight in June 2000.

In his book Hand a Man a Spanner, Rimmington notes that in the 1980s governments worldwide were driven by “right wing zealots” demanding councils sell off utilities like water, gas and power departments.

Today he finds himself in the opposite corner of a left-wing push to put the country’s water infrastructure into the hands of four giant companies.

His views are the same as in the 1990s – “it’s a major asset our communities paid for and they’ll have less control over it,” he said.

Waipā mayor Jim Mylchreest told the News’ Mary Anne Gill earlier this month the reforms were a “nonsense”.

Taupo and South Waikato mayors want referenda on the issue, Matamata-Piako’s mayor agrees there is a need for some “help here and there” but doesn’t support the handing over all infrastructure,

Hamilton’s Paula Southgate has been sympathetic to the plan promoted by Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta – but her own council also has members opposed to it.

Rimmington regarded the battle to keep American investors out as a battle with a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is sceptical of the Government’s lump sum payments to councils to encourage them to stay on board.

He also echoes concerns that an existing model in Scotland of what the Government is seeking to do has encountered problems.

The Government’s move is driven by a view that the four big companies will bring greater expertise to how we use water – but Rimmington says the issue is not down the abilities of local councils – it’s down to how much money they have to do the job.

If the Government approved low-cost loan, the quality of water management would rise dramatically, he believed.

He also saw Three Waters as a chipping away at the walls of local Government.

“The soul of local Government is local councils,” he said. “There will be merging water ownership – then it will be roads – and it will be the end of councils”.

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