Backtracking regional council must be taken to task – Rachel Stewart

Stuff

OPINION: It’s always struck me as odd that regional councils versus district/city councils generally escape much scrutiny from their ratepayers.

For your average citizen understanding, or even wanting to understand, their regional council’s policies and plans is not typically high on their list of things to do.

Yet, there are times when it’s advisable to look deeper than the spin – and, in my experience, the faster the spin the harder you need to look.

Horizons (Manawatu-Wanganui) Regional Council have touted their ‘One Plan’ as the answer to cleaning up the impacts of the region’s dairying on waterways.

After years of litigation and controversy the One Plan was adopted by Horizons in December last year.

Since then, the council has made it pretty obvious, to my eye, that it’s hated having to do what the Environment Court has ordered it to do.

Except last week they were finally outed as not following their own plan and, worse, actively assisting farmers in avoiding the rules. It had long been suspected that this was the case, but there’d been no concrete evidence.

An email from DairyNZ project manager Geoff Taylor to farmers, industry representatives and Horizons’ staff in July last year provided the confirmation.

Taylor said DairyNZ agreed with the council not to include nitrogen limits on consent documents so they could not be compared with the farm’s actual nitrogen leaching rate.

It now transpires that the council has been giving farmers 20 year discretionary consents that allow more nitrate leaching than set out in the One Plan.
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They include nitrogen management plans and nitrogen leaching targets well below those called for in the One Plan. Essentially, it’s a licence to pollute.

In other words, they’ve bypassed public scrutiny, and if the council were being true to the intention of the One Plan they would have made it hard for the polluters – those not sticking to the nitrogen leaching limits – to acquire a consent.

Horizons chief executive Michael McCartney said that he was happy that the council was meeting all its legal requirements and said that the bottom line was that water quality was improving.

Well, this columnist (and Horizons’ ratepayer) would say that there are two massive problems with McCartney’s response.

One is that while it may be “legal” – an assertion likely to be challenged – it certainly is not ethical.

Secondly, it is a complete fabrication to state that water quality is improving. Government spin may say so, but freshwater scientists nationwide consistently tell a different story.

In case you’re wondering why McCartney would say such a thing, well, here it is. “The dairy industry and the farming industry is important to our economy.”

Yes folks, once again the economy trumps the environment because, you know, jobs and growth. Never a thought given to the fact that without a functioning and healthy environment there is no economy.

Fish & Game NZ supported the original One Plan all the way to the High Court, winning at every stage. Chief executive Bryce Johnson was quick to raise the spectre of a judicial review.

“”Now Horizons thinks it can defy the courts and backtrack on its promises and obligations its own plan places on it.”

“Horizons Regional Council needs to be reviewed, judicially if necessary as all the indicators are that it is now not implementing the Environment Court and High Court judgements. The Auditor General and Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment may also have a role,” Mr Johnson said.

The bit that struck me as an admission that the council was blatantly helping farmers dodge the rules came from Horizons’ strategy and regulations manager, Nic Peet.

He said new modelling for nitrate levels on farms had meant One Plan targets were unobtainable for many farmers.

It’s become very hard to, for a significant number of farms, to meet those targets,” he said.

“If you like, it switched the estimate that the majority of farms would be able to meet the controlled activity numbers with relatively little economic impact – to, the majority of farms will probably be unable to meet them without a significant impact to the economic viability of their businesses.”

Oh, so years of science and courts and rulings mean nothing? Lobbying by dairy industry representatives, and the council’s own elected farmers has effectively seen them put the interests of dairy over the rest of their ratepayers.

This is not only happening in one region.

Think Hawke’s Bay and the Ruataniwha dam, or Greater Wellington and their proposed dam projects, or ECan having no democratically elected councillors but Government-appointed commissioners – all so that irrigation and dairy intensification can continue unabated.

Think also of Taranaki with their regional council’s chair being one David McLeod – a Fonterra director.

Dairy interests routinely dominate our regional councils and the consequences of that are now becoming obvious.

If you care about rivers that are better than just wadeable then you need to be concerned about what Horizons has just done to all of us.

They’ve just given everyone (except dairy farmers) the middle finger.

– Stuff
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