Three Waters: Government pushing on with reform plan

New Zealand's water overhaul has seen the Government accept almost all recommendations on the Three Waters proposals from an independent working group, as it ploughs ahead with transferring authority into four new regional entities.

Announcing the next steps in centralising the country’s drinking, storm and wastewater, the Government's plan is set to be in place by July 2024. It will see councils continue to own water entities through a shareholding model, with a two-tier system of regional representative groups and an independent entity board, the latter which makes the operational decisions.

The Government announced plans last year to create four publicly-owned water entities that would manage the country’s drinking, storm and wastewater, taking control away from councils.

An independent working group was established after concerns were raised by local Government, community groups and iwi about the privatisation of assets and loss of accountability.

A shareholding model will be introduced with one share per 50,000 people of a council's area, giving rights to vote on potential sales or mergers. There would also be an entrenchment proposed needing 75% support in Parliament to make legislation changes against privatisation.

Based on regional or geographical areas, the regional representative groups will have co-chairs and consensus decision making to cement co-governance principles. There would be equal representation of mana whenua and councils.

The groups set expectations, approve the strategic direction but have no involvement in operational decisions.

Infrastructure Minister Grant Robertson said this was to "ensure community voice and provide tighter accountability from each water services entity board".

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the model for the regional representative groups was not new.

"Many councils already have co-governance arrangements in place, and acknowledge the importance and benefit of such arrangements."

Then, entity boards which are independent with merit-based appointments, have the ability to make infrastructure decisions around investment. Mahuta ruled out a co-governance model on boards.

The entity boards would be appointed by the regional representative group based on skill and competency.

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Robertson said the reforms were about "delivering clean and safe drinking water at an affordable price for New Zealanders".

"Without reform, households are facing water costs of up to $9000 per year, or the prospect of services that fail to meet their needs."

He said they had listened to concerned of councils around ownership and through accepting most of the working group's recommendations they had made modifications to the proposals.

"I acknowledge the anxiety around change, but ratepayers and local communities cannot keep paying more and more for services that have been underinvested in for too long, and now put their health at risk."

Robertson said if opposition parties were concerned about water ownership, "here's the time to step up if you believe in public ownership".

Government will need support to entrench against privatisation of the assets.

"Now, they can step up and say 'yeah. we will agree that these assets won't be sold'," Robertson said.

Recommendations that were not accepted include a suggestion to have ongoing investment by the Crown, but the Government would continue to review that. It also said it would look at a Water Services Ombudsman later this year.

National's local government spokesperson Simon Watts said Friday's announcements were mere "tweaks" in the Government's "fatally flawed" Three Waters reforms.

He said the tweaks "do nothing to address the key concerns communities have about the reforms".

"According to the Government, local councils will still be the 'owners’ of their assets – but they won’t actually have any control over them. It’s like saying you own a house but don’t get to decide where to put the furniture," he said of the shareholding model.

“National will not support reforms that will strip councils and ratepayers of control over their assets and will repeal Labour’s four entity model.”

Local Government NZ president Stuart Crosby said he was encouraged by the Government's support of the working group recommendations "around making public ownership crystal clear, through a shareholding for councils".

“Without reform, many councils will struggle to meet new water standards, which will require significant investment over time. They will face prosecution by the new water regulator if they’re not meeting standards," he said.

"Clarifying ownership protects against privatisation; and community connection is enhanced by adding subgroups to the Regional Representative Groups.

“Councils will play a critical role in three waters after reform."

Lisa Tumahai, Ngāi Tahu Kaiwhakahaere, welcomed the announcement, saying it was pleasing community representation and environmental protections "will be strengthened".

"The ministers have agreed that regional sub-committees will feed into the water service entities’ regional representative oversight groups, ensuring local councils and iwi/hapū have their voices heard on the matters that most affect them.

"The new water services entities will have Te Mana o Te Wai at the centre of their governance, ensuring the health of local waterways is not compromised."

The Government cited an estimated cost of $180 billion to fix New Zealand’s broken and decrepit water infrastructure.

This year, it was revealed that Wellington's water had switched off fluoride months earlier than first announced, adding to the city's water woes that included millions of litres of sewage being discharged into the harbour in 2019, to multiple burst pipes in 2020, which Wellington Water labelled some at the time as simply "bad luck".

On April 3, 1News exclusively revealed more than one million New Zealanders were receiving drinking water that did not meet all of the Ministry of Health's standards,

Ten days later, "abundant evidence" of both short and long asbestos fibre release was found in all Christchurch water supply zones, except the modern development at Kainga.

The Three Waters reform project was triggered by an outbreak of waterborne disease gastroenteritis in Havelock North in 2016. It led to the death of four people and made thousands more seriously ill.

A report following the incident found district council-run public drinking water systems were potentially unsafe because of long-term underinvestment.

On Friday morning, ACT leader David Seymour criticised the timing of the Government's announcement.

“The Labour Government is once again using a Friday while the Prime Minister is on leave to dump information."

He said Three Waters deserved "sunlight and proper debate" as they were major changes.

“Today the Government will give its preferred option for Three Waters, reforms most mayors disagree with and people feel so strongly there are billboards opposing all over the country.

“Simply shifting water assets from one government body to another is a recipe for more bureaucracy and less local input, not an enduring solution to upgrade water infrastructure in New Zealand.”

Additional reporting by Irra Lee and Lillian Hanly.