The area I live in was the historical site of the Glenmark Station. The Glenmark station was at one time the largest sheep run in New Zealand and encompassed an area of some 150,000 acres. The founder of Glenmark Station, George Henry Moore, was an eccentric chap (his palatial mansion had no back door, a nod to Moore’s excessive suspicion about peoples’ intentions) and many books have been written detailing his colourful life.
I was thinking about Moore and his station the other day as I read an opinion piece by the Mayor of the district where Glenmark falls. The Hurunui District is one of the geographically biggest, and most sparsely populated districts in New Zealand – a big geographical area and very limited rating base make for some difficulties, as we shall see.
Anyway, the opinion piece in question was written to detail the Hurunui District’s response to the proposed Three-Waters Reform. The reform is a central government initiative to take responsibility for the so-called three waters (drinking water, wastewater and stormwater) away from individual councils and instead to look after them in a more centralised manner, via four different authorities.
Like many other small, rural councils, the Hurunui tends to prefer sorting its own stuff out, and any time the central government infringes upon that autonomy, suspicions arise. As one would expect given that attitude, the local council is against the reform seeing it as yet another example of “shiny bums in Wellington trying to control us.”
Thinking about water, it is important to consider the approach taken only a century ago around the time of Moore and his ilk. Back in those days, a pioneering landowner would dig a well, or take water from a river for drinking and washing purposes. Stormwater would run off back to those same watercourses and, at best, wastewater might end up in a shallow pit under an outhouse out the back. From whence it likely also ran into the same watercourse that people were drinking from.
As one would expect, back in those days there was a fairly regular occurrence of what Moore’s coarser farm workers would have called “crook guts” and what Moore’s daughter, Annie, would no doubt have referred to as a “certain delicacy of the constitution.” In those days, ill-health was a part of life, along with infant mortality and various other ailments.
Compare that to a few years ago when a drinking water supply in Havelock North was contaminated, causing widespread gastroenteritis (the modern term for “crook guts”). Whereas a century ago we would have, as a society, simply excepted poor water quality as something that had to be lived with, the outcry from the Havlock North situation went far and wide with demands that the Government should “do something.”
That something, when confronted by 67 individual councils who are responsible for the complex water schemes in their district, and have to comply with national standards despite a constrained rating resource, was centralisation. The theory goes that by having only four water authorities, there will be great economies of scale, greater consistency, and less chance that financially struggling small districts will fail to ensure best-practice towards drinking, waste and stormwater.
It also, truth be told, helps to have an independent authority rule over water when tensions between health and commerce are at stake. As anyone living in Canterbury knows, the huge increase in the number of dairy cows in our district, and the increased runoff of nitrates into the water supply has long been identified as a cause for increased rates of colorectal cancers. But it’s hard for a council to balance economic development, the need for an increased rating body, and environmental and health compliance.
Now of course there are some negative impacts. Centralisation results in fewer people on the ground with intimate knowledge of their own water schemes. It can mean that blanket standards are applied in a way that ignores the individual context of particular areas.
But for all these negative impacts, centralisation removes, once and for all, the ability for local councils to dodge their responsibilities. It removes the “postcode lottery” that results in my own home having regular drinking water outages and being placed on frequent boil water notices. It will, at the risk of lessened local autonomy, mean that everyone can enjoy a similar approach to drinking, waste and stormwater.
It’s an approach that will no doubt have old Moore spinning in his grave. But if it means that the descendants of his overworked and underpaid farm workers have fewer occasions of crook guts, it’ll be worth it.