Safe, clean water is a birthright of every New Zealander.
Wherever they live Kiwi ratepayers and communities expect to be able to turn on the tap and drink the water without fear of getting sick.
They also want to be able to swim in our rivers and lakes, and enjoy beaches free from the worry of raw sewage seeping into the ocean.
Our interconnected three waters system faces critical funding and capability challenges in delivering this. With pressures such as ageing infrastructure, population changes, increased tourism numbers and the need to build in resilience against climate change and natural events, the situation will get much worse if we do not address it.
The Havelock North campylobacter outbreak in 2016 made an estimated 5500 people ill and has been associated with the deaths of at least four people. Many others suffered long-term health effects as a result of it.
The subsequent inquiry recommended a dedicated water regulator – and I have just announced an overhaul of water regulation. New Zealanders deserve nothing less and we need to look towards a solution that builds on our own context rather than simply adopting models from overseas.
Along with Ministers David Parker (Environment) and David Clark (Health), I aim to take detailed proposals on the shape and form of the new regulatory arrangements across the three waters to Cabinet in June 2019.
At that stage it will be much clearer as to who does what and how it is done – but the bottom line is that public safety has to be our priority, with reduced environmental damage and contamination from wastewater as a high priority as well.
I know that in some places the notion of "mandatory residual treatment" of water translates to many as mandatory chlorination. That is one option but there are others, no decisions have been made on mandatory chlorination. The emphasis must be on meeting the higher drinking water and environmental standards and the shape and form of the regulator.
The inquiry also advanced the notion of consolidating water service providers. We have made no decisions on this. It is part of a longer conversation we need to have with local government which owns most of the water assets and which is facing wide-ranging funding challenges and capability issues, particularly in rural and provincial areas.
However, I am pleased to note that councils in a number of areas have voluntarily begun to look at the pros and cons of collaborative arrangements including in Hawke's Bay, Wellington, the Waikato and top of the south.
Underpinning any work in this area is a fundamental commitment to continued public ownership of water assets – so contrary to some speculation, privatisation is not on the agenda and the Government remains mindful of the concern expressed in many parts of the country about this.
I also want to make it very clear that this Government does not have an amalgamation agenda. I have said many times that we are determined to strengthen local governance, not undermine it.
To this end I aim to broaden our discussion with local government into how we can work together more generally not only to meet the funding and capability issues but to strengthen their role in promoting community prosperity and intergenerational wellbeing.
We know that the local government landscape is changing. It is facing unprecedented and complex challenges, and business as usual is not going to address growing expectations to be more responsive. Most issues mirror those specific to the three waters – demographics, climate change, infrastructure issues – but importantly also include financing and debt constraints.
They all impact both central and local government. Addressing them together so that all our people and their communities thrive is essential. We need to take a fresh approach, act smarter and apply a new lens to how we make a difference for communities across the country.
This is in line with bringing a focus on social, economic, environmental and cultural considerations back into legislation. It complements and anticipates the wellbeing focus of Budget 2019. It is all about the prosperity and wellbeing of communities.
So what are we doing about it? We have instructed the Productivity Commission to review local government funding and financing arrangements. We have progressed an Urban Growth Agenda to assist with better planning outcomes in high-growth areas.
We are working across agencies to explore how central government can better support the relationship between Māori and local government. We are looking at how we can fund the infrastructure necessary for regional growth.
And we have begun by taking concrete steps to ensure now and into the future the safety and quality of that most precious of life-giving assets: our water. This approach is underpinned by a strong desire to improve quality of life and wellbeing outcomes in a way that addresses the stresses that go with this expectation.
It's important to plan for the future we want to see and that is what I am working to achieve.
* Hon Nanaia Mahuta is the Minister of Local Government