Horizons Regional Council in the central North Island has done what all regional councils should do.
It has taken its responsibilities to the public as outlined in the Resource Management Act seriously.
Horizons came up with a plan which will reduce the damage to the environment caused by farming, horticulture and power generation.
Horizon’s ‘One Plan’ proposes to do this by giving the council more oversight over activities that pose environmental risks, for example, requiring consents for activities such as cultivating steep land and imposing upper limits on how much nitrogen is allowed to leach into the waterways as a result of farm activities.
The public will benefit from this plan because it will stabilise water quality in the least damaged rivers, lakes and estuaries and bring the worse affected – such as Lake Horowhenua and the Kaitoke lakes – up to an acceptable level in time.
That means the region’s water ways will be more able to sustain wildlife and be safer to use for recreation than they are at present.
That some of the waterways in the Horizons region are currently in an appalling state is widely known.
Not surprisingly Horizons has had to endure an intense shelling from the businesses that will have to alter their practices. In the face of livestock and horticultural farmer opposition, the second version of One Plan that emerged after consideration by commissioners was much watered down from what the council had originally announced.
Unsurprisingly the Council was taken to the Environment Court by Fish and Game and the Department of Conservation and forced to defend the charge that One Plan Version 2 was too slack.
Fish and Game, and the Department of Conservation won, the court requiring that in order for consistency with the RMA to be maintained, the final version of One Plan has to be remedied to reinstate the stricter provisions and broader coverage (including the requirement that intensive sheep & beef farming and vegetable growing are activities needing to comply).
The persistent complainants who railed even against the diluted version, notably Federated Farmers lost a lot of ground at the Environment Court. They’d clearly not done their homework.
The rights and wrongs of this case couldn’t be clearer.
Farmers who rely on irrigation to support sheep and beef, who grow crops or vegetables, or practice dairy farming with industrial intensity, all have the potential to impart an adverse impact on the environment. Yet they bear few if any of the costs of this. They reap private benefit from their activity but pay very little to cover the environmental damage they cause, some of it irreversible the rest requiring clean-up which the general public has to pay for.
The natural injustice in this is a no-brainer.
It’s is a standard economics problem and the solution lies in regulation.
Horizons Council was supported by the Department of Conservation and both are on the ball in proposing to use regulation to bring about behavioural changes that will reduce the adverse environmental impacts of intensive land use.
The myopia of self-interest of course conveniently blinds the polluter to the rights of others. These persistent opponents of any sanction are now appealing the Environment Court decision in the High Court, convinced they can prove the illegality of One Plan.
There’s a lot at stake here.
Horizons is not the only council to take a serious stand against environmental damage caused by farming and horticulture practices. Success for it in the courts will confirm the precedent set by Waikato Regional Council with its nutrient cap and trade scheme around Lake Taupo.
The nationwide pushback against unsustainable farming practices, especially dealing to the consequences of ever-rising stocking rates is long overdue.
What is astonishing and truly sobering about the Horizons case is the new low it has set for the willingness of Cabinet Ministers to use their position to further the interests of businesses at the expense of the public and to hell with the environment.
Federated Farmers’ onslaught on Horizons has been aided and abetted by David Carter, Minister for Primary Industries. As a Cabinet Minister one might think Carter would represent the wider public interest, rather than just the farming lobby. However he has set out to undermine public acceptance of One Plan, claiming that it will “dramatically reduce” the productivity (read profitability) of farming and as a result be harmful to the public.
He’s said he’ll get the RMA changed – continuing a string of abuses on environmental protection from National’s senior ministers of late who can’t conceive of economic growth without accompanying environmental destruction.
It is a regressive view but one National, faced with a flat economy, is wholeheartedly embracing. In recent weeks Carter has referred to a report his Department commissioned from the Crown Research Institute Landcare Research, implying that this report showed the Environment Court had significantly underestimated the impact of One Plan on farm profitability. The Environment Court had accepted evidence that estimated a rise in costs for farmers of, on average, less than 5%, rising to nearly 17% for some farms. Landcare Research’s report looked at a wide range of policy options, none of which exactly mirrored One Plan. It was a report commissioned for the general purpose of informing local governments grappling with central government objectives for freshwater management. Its publication is timely given the damning findings on the state of our rivers reported in November by the Ministry of the Environment.
A further benefit will no doubt be provided to the Land and Water Forum attempting to arrive at sensible policy on using and polluting sources of fresh water.
In their report Landcare Research researchers did not model One Plan specifically but looked at three types of policies: better management practices (whether introduced voluntarily or by regulation), ceilings on nutrient leaching combined with the ability to trade these limits between farms, and taxing nutrient discharges.
One Plan’s aim is to bring about new management practices while introducing ceilings on the nutrient leakage from farms into the catchment. So it sits roughly as a combination of the first two types of policies that Landcare Research modelled.
However the policy Landcare Research modelled is so far astray from One Plan that the authors of the Landcare Research report specifically said their work could not be used to assess One Plan.
“As a result of the policy assumptions presented in this report, the estimates are not directly comparable with analyses of the One Plan.”
This caveat didn’t stop the Minister concluding the possible profit losses of 22% to 43% emerging from Landcare Research’s modelling were a fair reflection of One Plan. That’s about as sloppy intellectually as you can get – it’s amazing he can be so wrong.
Landcare Research modelled a policy which reduced the flow of nutrients from farms to waterways far more dramatically than is proposed under the Environment Court version of the One Plan. Landcare Research used nitrogen leaching reduction targets of 53% compared to current levels. Horizons’ current policy goal under One Plan is to reduce nitrogen leaching by just 4% to 9% in the first ten years and 8% to 20% over 20 years.
This huge difference makes any comparison between the two absolutely mad.
It is clear that nutrient leaching has continued in the Manawatu at a rapid pace since 2007. Otherwise Landcare Research’s use of 2007 benchmarks wouldn’t have led to such an extreme target for reducing pollution rates today.
So it could well be that Horizons needs to be more ambitious, not less as the Minister and Fed Farmers would have it.
Certainly, the Environment Court wasn’t happy to see goals watered down.
By misrepresenting the profit implications of One Plan David Carter has attempted to undermine Horizons and endorsed the self-interest of the farming lobby – odd he’s also the Minster for Local Government. More importantly this is yet another demonstration of the National cabinet’s open hostility to environmental protection.
Gareth Morgan is a businessman, economist, investment manager, motor cycle adventurer, public commentator and philanthropist. Susan Guthrie is an economist who works at the Morgan Foundation. This opinion piece was first published on his blog garethsworld.com and in the DomPost. It is reprinted here with permission.