The Government has confirmed local council ownership and strengthened local voice by accepting the vast majority of the Three Waters working group recommendations, Infrastructure Minister Grant Robertson and Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced today.
The recommendations centred on representation, governance and accountability.
"Fundamentally these reforms are about delivering clean and safe drinking water at an affordable price for New Zealanders. Without reform, households are facing water costs of up to $9,000 per year, or the prospect of services that fail to meet their needs," Robertson said.
The Three Waters working group was set up late last year to address growing council concerns including accountability. It recently made more than 40 recommendations to the government to address those concerns. Today's government decision comes in response to these.
"Everyone accepts the need for change. You only have to look at the number of burst pipes, boil water notices and the volume of sewerage spewing into our harbours to see we can't carry on as we are and that our water infrastructure is crumbling.
"At the heart of councils' concerns have been the issues of ownership and voice. By accepting the majority of the recommendations made by the independent working group on Representation, including a shareholding plan, we have listened to these concerns and modified our proposals accordingly.
"With the key issues now addressed we cannot afford to wait any longer. The costs to communities and ratepayers are just too big to ignore and we need to get on with fixing it," Robertson said.
Mahuta said: "The working group was tasked with addressing the issues of most concern to the sector and Cabinet has agreed to the majority of their recommendations that ensure councils, iwi and communities have a strong voice in the new entities."
"I acknowledge the anxiety around change, but ratepayers and local communities cannot keep paying more and more for services that have been under-invested in for too long, and now put their health at risk.
"That's why the government has extensively engaged with local government, iwi and hapū, the water industry for more than four years to understand the case for change and assess the best option for reform.
"This is the best option to deliver the clean, safe and affordable drinking water New Zealanders deserve while also retaining community ownership and protecting against future privatisation.
"We are now at a point where the case for change is well made and the policy has been robustly tested and improved. We have listened to concerns and now is time to move forward with these reforms," Mahuta said.
In line with the working group's recommendations, the Government will provide for a public shareholding structure that makes community ownership clear, with shares allocated to councils reflective of the size of their communities (one share per 50,000 people).
It will also strengthen and clarify the role of the new waters service entity's governance groups known as regional representative groups. There will be joint oversight from local councils and mana whenua to ensure community voice and strengthen accountability from each water services entity board.
Local sub-committees will strengthen smaller communities' voices by feeding into the regional representative governance groups.
The principle of Te Mana o te Wai or the health and wellbeing of all waterways and water bodies underpins water services frameworks in the new structure.
"The governance arrangement in the regional representative groups is not something that is new. Many councils already have co-governance arrangements in place, and acknowledge the importance and benefit of such arrangements," Mahuta said.
"For example, the Waikato River Authority set up by the previous government, established fifty-fifty co-governance around the Waikato River and is a good working model of shared decision making to improve the health of the river," she said.
"The regional representative group is not about ownership but rather ensuring community inclusion and voices are heard, securing a kaitiaki or guardianship role for the protection of our environment, and maintaining the focus on the long-term planning required for national infrastructure. It's a model that makes sense and is already working well.
"Without the changes, we are making all the evidence points to a legacy of broken pipes, outdated sewage plants, and potential repeats of the tragic Havelock North gastroenteritis outbreak that killed four people and made thousands sick. This should not be the case in a first-world country," Mahuta said.
• Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.