The move has been welcomed by Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), with president Stuart Crosby saying it provides much-needed momentum, as well as certainty for ratepayers.
He said councils face big future bills for water services, given the new regulator, the unknown condition of many pipes and the impact of climate change.
“Without reform, ratepayers will be hit in the pocket,” Crosby said.
“Everyone in the local government sector is advocating for change to our three waters system, even those opposed to the Government’s model. No one thinks the status quo is sustainable.
“LGNZ is encouraged to see the minister support the working group’s recommendations around making public ownership crystal clear, through a shareholding for councils.
“We also support the changes to strengthen communities’ and councils’ voices. These changes address key concerns and we’ve pushed hard for them.”
Robertson said the Government’s three waters reforms are fundamentally about delivering clean and safe drinking water that is affordable and without reform NZ households are facing water costs of up to $9000 a year, or the prospect of services that fail to meet their needs.
He said 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,” Robertson said.
Concerns about the reforms raised by the Communities 4 Local Democracy group have largely been around ownership and voice and Robertson said by accepting the majority of the working group’s recommendations, the Government has listened to those concerns and modified its 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,” he said.
Mahuta said by accepting the majority of the working group’s recommendations Cabinet has ensured councils, iwi and communities will have a strong voice in the new entities that will be established as part of the reforms.
She acknowledges the proposed changes have caused anxiety, but said ratepayers and communities cannot keep paying more and more for services that have been underinvested in for too long and now put their health at risk.
“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);
- further strengthen and clarify the role of the Regional Representative Group, with joint oversight from local councils and mana whenua to ensure community voice and provide tighter accountability from each water services entity board;
- maintain that board members are to be appointed based on skills and competency;
- strengthen connections to smaller communities including through local sub-committees feeding into the Regional Representative Group, to ensure all communities’ voices are considered as part of investment prioritisation; and
- recognise and embrace Te Mana o te Wai – the health and wellbeing of our waterways and waterbodies – as a korowai, or principle, that applies across the water services framework.
Mahuta said the governance arrangement in the Regional Representative Group is not new, as many councils already have co-governance arrangements in place.
“For example the Waikato River Authority set up by the previous Government, established 50:50 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.”
University of Auckland Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering scientist Dr Lokesh Padhye is pleased that the Government has taken most of the working group’s recommendations but says without sufficient financial backing fixing water issues will be an impossible task, so the Government will need to stay engaged throughout the reform process.
He suggests a comprehensive review of the changes five years after the reforms take effect to ensure they are working as expected.