24 February 2021

Water - the last utility of the Soviet era

You could hardly not notice the growing list of scandals seen in local authority supplied water, sewer or stormwater services in recent times and wonder what has gone wrong.  From lead in water supplied by Dunedin City Council in a number of small towns, to the Havelock North water supply contamination and the breakdown of multiple parts of Wellington's water networks.  Imagine if a private water bottler had been caught with the contamination of supply seen by some local authority systems, the howls of outrage from politicians would be palpable, but it isn't quite that way - you see water in New Zealand is perhaps the last bastion of what socialists call the "democratic control of the means of production, distribution and exchange" of the key utility networks.

Unlike electricity, gas, telecommunications, ports, airports, railways and even roads, water (outside Auckland) in New Zealand was shielded from any serious economic reform during the 1980s and the 1990s. That was a time, which seems so long ago now, when there was widespread commercialisation and in some cases privatisation of utility networks, and either liberalisation of market entry or the application of independent oversight and regulation of the management and supply of the services concerned.

Before then, local electricity distribution was led by local authorities, which managed them much like water and the results were underinvestment in power line networks in some places, gold plating in others, and frequent power cuts as parts of the networks failed.  Now these networks are either privatised or run by local trusts, but all subject to regulatory oversight around capital spending and how much they can charge consumers for maintenance and renewal of their assets. 

You see local authority issues with infrastructure don't mean all infrastructure, because they actually have little struggle at all with the infrastructure they are not responsible for owning, managing or funding.  Electricity, gas and telecommunications networks all grow, expand and get maintained with little recourse to ratepayers or indeed the "democratic control" that the left is so keen on.  Now that isn't to mean that there isn't some government intervention, such as the vast spending on fibre optic networks funded by central government but undertaken by private enterprise, but this is not the model by which water networks are funded or managed in New Zealand - you see water remains the last bastion of the Soviet style era of socialist management of a utility.

If you want to take a nostalgic trip back to the era of Rob Muldoon, the era that the late Jim Anderton and his Alliance Party, and indeed at one point Winston Peters, pined for, you need only look at how the "three waters" (supply, waste and stormwater) are supplied and managed in New Zealand today.  Indeed, it is a case study in exactly how the principles of democratic socialist economics work in practice.  You can see the vestiges of this thinking in Green Party policy today, which says "Ensure Council Controlled Organisations are only used where this has benefits over direct service provision by local authorities".  

Leftwing opposition to reform of water is long standing.  It is almost laughable today to recall when former Green MP (and still Wellington Regional Councillor) Sue Kedgley regarded reforms to the Local Government Act allowing local authorities to choose to contract private companies to provide water infrastructure for contract periods of longer than 15 years as  "the potential to be hugely harmful to the public".   She much prefers a democratically controlled water supply that sees lead enter it, with the ultimate penalty being... you might not get re-elected as a city councillor.

However, it is the late (conspiratorially minded) Penny Bright, who founded the wittily named "Water Pressure Group" in Auckland that for many many years was the squealer that regarded any private sector involvement in the water sector as beyond the pale.  She regarded water as "a basic human right", albeit one that she thought was best delivered by a bunch of politicians re-elected every three years directing a bureaucracy.  She was passionate about her beliefs, but wrong.

The problem with water is the problem that was seen with telecommunications when it was run by the Post Office, or electricity when it was run by the Municipal Electricity Department of Wellington City Council (or whatever council) et al, which is that political control of the funding and of the taxation needed to maintain and renew a complex utility was extremely poor at being accountable to those who "own" the infrastructure and consume its services, because there is little link between what you pay, where that money is spent and how much is spent on the water networks.  The NZ Post Office once thought it was a great idea to install "triple twisted copper cable" for telephone lines in the Wellington suburb of Khandallah, despite it not being the international standard for phone lines, because some engineers thought it would improve its robustness - at the same time upwards of 50% of coin operated public phone boxes did not work (there were no mobile phones then).  Bureaucratic service delivery agencies don't get driven by customer needs, but their own internal imperatives and those of their political masters, which understandably are pulled in many different directions - but customer service (being a monopoly, funded from taxes) isn't upper most (unless of course, in a few cases, it is to help a Councillor or his mates out).

Local politicians almost never campaign for election on issues like renewing water infrastructure, but they sure like big shiny showoff things like convention centres, sports stadiums and "visions".  After all, why campaign on something that involves digging streets up and nobody really notices, when you can get your name put on a park or a building instead?  Imagine if the issue of installing more mobile phone capacity were up to local government and it were paid for by rates, would it ever get done?  Water supply pipes, wastewater pipes, stormwater pipes, none of them matter much to most people most of the time, until their service stops or their property is flooded - so they are easy for politicians to defer spending on. 

There is one exception in New Zealand, which is Auckland.  Watercare Services was set up in 1991 as an example of how to commercialise water delivery (albeit not stormwater), and it is from this that the leftwing backlash against water reform arose.  Opposition to commercialisation, opposition to people paying for the water they use was central to this.  The idea that it is somehow fairer for the single pensioner who uses barely enough water for a few cups of tea and a shower a day to cross subsidise the water used by a family of four was not an argument worth having with the organised, almost hysterical, opposition to reform.  So Watercare Services was not replicated elsewhere, albeit that local government reforms did allow local authorities to do so if they wished - but rare is the local politician willing to relinquish control.  It's notable that Auckland doesn't seem to have the issues with supply or wastewater of other cities, although stormwater remains a major issue (and is outside Watercare's remit).

So water, as it remains, has all of the symptoms of a centrally planned, "democratically accountable", bureaucratically delivered service.  It's funding for capital is entirely dependent on local politicians choosing to allocate rates money to it or to borrow to pay for large investment, and so it has to plan from year to year based on how councillors manage their priorities - whether it be convention centres, minimising rates increases or getting elected.  It is only when water infrastructure gets critical (i.e. pipes bursting, supply running out or being poisoned) that political attention is given, and that is frankly too late. Water in New Zealand is socialism in action, and it demonstrates that it is profoundly difficult to get politicians to focus on long-term priorities that are not seen as trendy (note that some are extremely eager to make interventions under the auspices of trying to stop climate change, even though the impact of those interventions is infinitesimal, it's much more about being seen to do the right thing).

Ironically, the recently elected Labour Government has decided to reform water in a way that a previous Labour Government refused to do so for roads - by encouraging local government to take water out of its control altogether and putting it into a handful of centrally government controlled organisations.  Yes it is arguably nationalisation, but it is a transfer from barely capable local control to something else.   It is almost admitting that local democratic control of a critical utility has failed as a delivery model, and that having arms-length professional organisations (let's call them State Owned Enterprises maybe?) that charge consumers for the services they provide, recover capital costs from consumers over the lifetime of those assets and seek to optimise costs and service delivery (with regulatory oversight) is a much better model - i.e. the model that many politicians on the left would have called "neo-liberal" and a precursor to that nastiest of words "privatisation".

However, NZ has had decades of water being supplied "not for profit" and with "democratic control", maybe it's about time it was left to professionals, with the political role being to set up the legal framework to ensure that water is run as a business like other utilities.  The Government's proposals are encouraging, although I would be much more draconian and just take it off of councils and legally require them to cease charging water rates or cut general rates that fund water, and then establish a mix of metered or uniform charges for water consumers.

Of course the UK privatised water many years ago, and hasn't looked back. Some stats on that experience (source: Statement of Professor Chris Binnie, former President of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (not uncritical of the water privatisation process):

  • Drinking water quality measured at tap increased from a 99% pass rate to 99.96%
  • Properties at risk of low water pressure reduced from 2% to 0.001%
  • Properties subject to unplanned water supply interruptions of 12 or more hours reduced from 0.4% to 0.003%
  • Leakage dropped from 4,980ml/d to 3,306ml/d by 2000, but is still too high (3,183ml/d) in 2018
  • Residential water meter use raised from zero to 55%, with a target of 80% by 2040.
  • Per capita water consumption dropped from 155 l/h/d to 141 l/h/d (with more households, each household using less water)
  • Household properties at risk of internal sewer flooding reduced from 32,000 to 3,000.
  • Non-compliance with the EU Bathing Water Directive (regarding dumping of wastewater at sea) reduced from 16% to 1%
  • Failures to respond within 10 working days to complaints dropped from nearly one third to 0.4% failure within five working days.

Sure there is plenty to criticise (e.g. Thames Water remains slow in addressing leaks, but it has reasonable incentives to address it, because it can't charge consumers for water leaking from its system and it is generally more costly to provide more capacity for storage than to fix leaks), but it is notable that the water problems are as much about an ideological resistance to reform as they are due to the failings of a system that is not well set up to incentivise investment, supply of services to consumers and deliver long term outcomes.

It looks like New Zealand (except Auckland) is coming to an end of its Soviet-style/Muldoonist era in water management, thanks to a left-wing Labour Government acting to implement reforms that are not far removed from what the Lange/Palmer/Moore Labour Government or the Bolger/Shipley National Governments might have done. It's also telling that the much vaunted "power of general competence" that the first term of the Clark Government granted local government has proven to not be competent in managing the three waters in so many cases.  

Perhaps there are other compentences that local government should be freed from as well?

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