Tangata whenua will have equal rights with councils in overseeing new services for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater in major reforms proposed by the Government.
Councils and iwi Māori are unpacking and assessing proposals unveiled on Wednesday by Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta to move three-waters services, currently delivered by 67 different councils, into the hands of four publicly-owned providers.
The new regional entities would own and operate all three waters assets on behalf of the councils. They will be overseen by four Regional Representative Groups with an equal number of mana whenua and local government representatives – up to six seats each.
Mana whenua appointments to the four joint oversight groups will be guided by a kaupapa Māori approach. Each of the new entities will fund and support mana whenua capability and capacity to participate in the entity's activities.
The Regional Representative Groups will put in place independent panels to appoint boards for each of the four entities.
Ruapehu mayor Don Cameron says the joint representation model is vital and should be protected against changes of government.
"It is along the lines we've been negotiating for some time – ensuring there is both local government and iwi presence on those boards. Central North Island iwi have real interest in rights of water going north.
"We want to make sure that it is something that's going to go forward for at least the next 20 years. The worry is always that if there's a change of government there's also a change of view around this. We want to make sure that the right people are on those entities."
Mahuta said the reforms will overhaul a water services system that is "ineffective, inefficient, and not fit for purpose" and upgrading infrastructure over the next 30 years would be unaffordable for many communities if changes aren't made. Underinvestment, including deferred spending on maintenance and renewals, had left a legacy of impending costs and poor services, she said.
The four large water entities would create an affordable system that ensures safe drinking water and resilient wastewater and stormwater systems.
The Government puts the cost of infrastructure upgrades at between $120 billion and $185 billion. Small, rural councils like Ruapehu District Council could not shoulder such costs on their own, Cameron said.
"That was pretty evident to us some years ago when we started looking deeply into the three waters. Increases to annual ratepayer bills of $2000 up to $9000 – clearly that is going to be unaffordable particularly for areas like ours. We have a high deprivation index.
"We knew it had to be done at least at a regional level to spread the cost and ensure a fair price for reticulated water for everyone."
Government modelling shows that without the proposed reforms, households in the Ruapehu District will be paying $8690 a year for water in 2051 but only $1220 under the reforms – $200 a year less than the $1430 they pay now.
The 2051 figures are similar for Rangitīkei ratepayers, who currently pay $1030 a year. In South Taranaki, ratepayers face costs of $7460 without reform or $1220 with reform – a reduction of $700 per year on the $1920 they pay now. The costs for Whanganui District ratepayers are $4200 without reform or $1220 with reform – an increase of $300 on the $990 paid currently.
Cameron said the Government would need to ensure "fair and equitable" recognition of investment to date by individual councils.
"Some councils have had a continuous programme of repairs, maintenance and upgrades. Others have decided not to upgrade, and some have very little debt.
"What we're interested in is how this is going to be dealt with when the entities take the assets over, how payments are going to be made to each council around asset value, and also debt and clearing that debt."
Ruapehu District Council has used $5.6 million of "stimulus funding" from Government on a continual upgrade programme for its six water plants and six wastewater plants, and another $4m of tourism infrastructure funding on water projects in Ohakune. It has also budgeted in its Long-Term Plan for investment to continue.
"We need to be thinking seriously about how the three waters are going to transition over the next three years. We're one of the councils that will continue on with upgrades for all our plants over the next three years, so that when the plants are taken over they're in good condition for the new entities to continue on without having to have the huge upgrade some plants will need across the country," Cameron said.
"With those assets being taken away, we're looking at the future of local government as well – how we're transitioning to areas such as building communities, which is going to be new for some councils."
Cameron says Ruapehu District Council is not at this stage considering opting out from the water reform programme but there is opportunity for council and public feedback.
"From my point of view, it would be difficult for us to step back from this and say no because we'd very quickly get way over our debt limit."