An exciting journey in water

An exciting journey in water

This article first appeared in the May/June edition of Water 

Heather Shotter has taken up the role of executive director of the National Transition Unit for the Three Waters reform programme. Recently chief executive of the Palmerston North City Council, her career also includes senior roles in the private sector. She will be speaking at a Department of Internal Affairs panel session at the Water New Zealand Conference and Expo in Hamilton on Thursday 26 May.  In this column, Heather outlines her plans for working with the water sector to achieve an effective transition to the new Water Service Entities in 2024.

Every New Zealander now and into the future deserves to be able to turn on a tap and get clean drinking water; know that waste is not flushing into rivers or the ocean; that our stormwater systems can cope with a downpour.

That’s the objective of the Three Waters reforms, and I am acutely aware that the water sector is under extraordinary pressure as it works with the National Transition Unit (NTU) to achieve it.

After four and a half years as a council CE, I also know how challenging it has been for councils to deliver safe, clean water in an affordable way, for all communities.  That's why over the past two years I've been involved in the Three Waters Steering Committee, which has actively worked to find a solution to that challenge. 

Now I am privileged to have been given the opportunity to bring my experience in local government and commercial acumen to the leadership of the Three Waters National Transition Unit.

Three Waters is a huge project – one of the biggest reforms in New Zealand’s recent history. And while the policy and legislation are still being refined, the scale of the programme means some practical work needs to get going in the meantime. That’s the transition unit’s job to coordinate, but it requires collaboration with the wider water sector to be successful.

For councils, I recognise this collaboration means more work and this is a challenge: I know all too well the heavy workload councils are currently managing and the need for certainty in the wider water sector.

Councils have business-as-usual to manage; they’re having to make significant infrastructure decisions; they’re doing this while also managing staff shortages; and they’re facing requests for information from the NTU which has the potential to add to the pressure.

Our requests reflect that the NTU cannot do this alone. The wider sector has a crucial role to play and possesses the knowledge, information and operational background that is vital to a successful transition.

While I’ve only been in the job for a few weeks, I’m keen to hear how we can best operate in a way that supports councils and the water sector while generating the critical information the NTU needs to do its job.

The partnership I want to develop with the broader sector requires sensitivity to pressures and requirements on both sides.

For our part, I will ensure the NTU is forward-signalling our work as much as possible so councils and those working in the water sector can plan for the data we’ll be asking of it. I want you to know that while we have need of the data we are requesting, we do have room – within reason – to be flexible.

I am moving to build on the structures and people we have in place in the NTU to support he successful implementation of the reforms.  I have ha some discussions with part of the sector, and more are planned.

I have taken some confidence from those discussions that there is willingness to work closely with the NTU.

That willingness is something I want to foster as we build a brighter future not just for water customers and users, but for the water sector as well.

These reforms are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to level-up the capacity, capability, and sophistications of the water sector in a way that hasn’t been possible under the status quo arrangements.

Watercare has given us a glimpse of the possibilities when you stand up entities of scale that have the financial capacity to make far reaching investments in technology, plant, and network. That has created training and development opportunities for all Watercare’s staff, who have also benefited from the significant focus on the health, safety and well-being over the past 12-years. 

This is not an isolated example. We’ve seen similar results in other regions. The reforms will effectively mean that the same results can be reproduced wherever you live in our country.

Given the once in a generation opportunity there has never been a better time to be working in the water sector.

The real upside of this levelling-up process is that our communities are the ones who reap the benefits, be it providing safer water, protecting our environment, unlocking housing developments, or simply connecting people to town supply.

That’s an outcome I’m confident every one of us can get behind, and I look forward to travelling on this exciting journey with you.

Heather Shotter will be speaking at a Department of Internal Affairs panel session at the Water New Zealand Conference and Expo in Hamilton on Thursday 26 May.

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