Reform to transform

3 Sep 2021

The plan to aggregate the country’s 67 local authority water services operations into four publicly-owned multi-regional entities is intended to deliver benefits of scale and efficiency to the communities served.

But combined with a more proactive regulatory regime for water safety and the environmental impacts of wastewater and stormwater networks, economic regulation will help drive badly needed investment in the country’s three waters infrastructure. As a result, the water industry will be primed to become a far more significant sector of the national economy.

Analysis by Deloitte suggests the investment required – estimated between $120 billion and $185 billion – across the three waters sector will add $14 billion to $23 billion to our GDP and as many as 9000 new jobs over the next 30 years.

Looking at it another way, the additional activity and headcount represents a near doubling in size for the industry by 2051.

“We’re really mindful that we need to continue to engage and work with industry, and ideally have an industry led plan to make sure we can actually achieve that workforce growth,” executive director of the Three Waters Reform Programme Allan Prangnell told Water New Zealand members during an August webinar.

“We know that we’ve got training and professional development challenges – where are we going to source these workers from? But there is a significant opportunity there. The lesson that we’ve taken from looking at a number of jurisdictions overseas which appears to be backed up by the Deloitte analysis, is that most of the jobs are at the front line, in delivery, and in the regions.”

At this point, those challenges and opportunities lie in the future, albeit one that will advance swiftly depending on the outcome of a great deal of discussion and consideration taking place right now across local and central government.

Since Government announcements at Local Government New Zealand’s July conference, the Department of Internal Affairs has been working with LGNZ, Taituarā, Water New Zealand, other sector groups, and the 67 local authorities themselves to build understanding of the proposed reforms and their effect on communities and council function.

At the same time the Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta and her Cabinet colleagues are considering the feedback from the sector as they move closer to decisions on how to move forward and meet the agreed three waters service delivery and affordability challenges.

Speaking alongside Allan Prangnell at last month’s webinar, was Three Waters programme transition director Amelia East. She told Water New Zealand members the Department’s Three Waters Reform programme needs to be ready, whatever the decision.

“Work in the transition space now doesn’t preempt any decisions about whether the reforms will proceed as proposed, but ultimately should they do so, we need to be match ready and match fit.’’

She says much of that work to date has been going on without a great deal of outside visibility, but that will change should the Government choose to proceed. So what would this look like?

“There will be a national transition unit with centralised functions to ensure a consistent approach across the country and provide support to four local establishment entities which will also be up and running as soon as possible once we know how the reforms are proceeding.

“Those four local establishment entities represent the four future water service entities and they are really about taking that local ownership of what these future entities are going to be doing going forward.

“This is going to be a really critical part of reform delivery and will enable the right input into what needs to be established on the ground.”.

Amelia says the transition unit is mindful that many in the sector will effectively be asked to work toward ensuring a smooth transition to and implementation of the new service delivery model while at the same time ensuring the continued delivery of high quality services and infrastructure investment programmes.

“We really need to minimise any potential disruption to communities and consumers, and to do that we need to advance the reform objectives with the sector in a way that works with the industry.”

Should the Government’s proposals proceed, to guide and inform that process, the Department’s transition team will soon establish structured engagement channels with the industry in a form that recognises and helps them manage the additional calls on their experience and expertise.

Amelia says this ongoing engagement is about more than ensuring a smooth transition.

“It’s also about asking whether there is potential in this short period of time to identify some transformation opportunities that can really set up the sector for success going forward.

“This is about subject matter experts with strong industry experience working alongside yourselves in the sector, local and central government to make sure we capture your views.

“We believe this is required whether reform proceeds or not, it’s to be a supplementary and really important part of what the sector should be looking at and it’s a really exciting part of transition.”

Amelia says the frequency and prominence of questions from the sector about what the reforms mean for the existing workforce suggests many individuals still feel uncertainty about their prospects beyond July 1, 2024.

She points to the commitment made by ministers at the Local Government conference.

“Everyone who works in the water sector industry now for councils should know that they have a job going forward. Any member of staff who works primarily in water will be guaranteed a role at the new entities which maintains the key features of their current role – salary, location, leave, hours, days of work.

“This is about providing certainty now but also about how we can provide those opportunities moving forward so we can realise all those benefits for the industry and most importantly for our communities that are identified in the case for change.”

Article supplied by the Department of Internal Affairs Three Waters Reform programme.

This Story is from the September/October issue of Water