The Environment Court recently released its interim decision on Horizons Regional Council's Proposed One Plan ("Plan").  This plan consolidates six regional plans and the Regional Policy Statement into one document, providing the direction for the region's environmental management for the next 10 years.

The consolidation process began in 2004 with almost three years of community and stakeholder consultation.  After formal public notification on 31 May 2007, a total of 467 submissions and 62 further submissions were received.  This was followed by several pre-hearing meetings to narrow the issues.  The Council hearing panel's decision was issued on 24 August 2010, and was significantly different to the originally notified version. 

Twenty-two appeals were subsequently lodged with the Environment Court.  During the course of negotiation, mediation and expert witness conferencing, both before and during the Environment Court hearing, further changes were made to the Council's decision version, with only 20% of appeals left for the Court to rule on.  In our view, the Plan's process highlights the Court's important role as an independent arbiter available at the end of the process to resolve the final and most contentious disputes. 

The Environment Court's decision is in five parts: introduction and principles of the RMA; landscape and natural features; indigenous biodiversity; sustainable land use / accelerated erosion; and water quality.  While the Court comes to interim conclusions on each of these issues, it has directed the Council to redraft the Plan's provisions, conferring where necessary with affected parties, and return those revised provisions to the Court for consideration by 26 October 2012.

The main environmental issues facing the region include declining water quality, increasing demand for water, unsustainable hill country land use, and threatened biodiversity of native habitats.  In relation to biodiversity, the Court ruled that all rare and threatened habitats should be regarded as "significant" under the RMA, and effects on them first avoided if possible, otherwise mitigated or offset by improvements elsewhere.  With regards to land management, the Court concluded that farms at risk of soil erosion should be offered farm plans through Horizons’ Sustainable Land Use Initiative, with those landowners who choose not to develop a farm plan having to comply with the rules for vegetation clearance and earthworks to ensure they do not increase the risk of accelerated erosion.  

The most contentious issue was water quality.  This is the first regional plan to address nutrient management on a catchment basis.  The Court concluded that a regulatory regime for water quality should apply to four intensive land uses: dairying, intensive (ie involving the use of irrigation) sheep and beef farming, cropping, and commercial vegetable growing.   Unsurprisingly, agricultural and horticultural farmers alike have criticised the Court's decision as being too stringent and believe it will have a serious effect on their communities.  However, the Court stated that while some farmers would need to change their practices to adhere to limitations on nutrient losses, in most cases it could be done at an acceptable cost.

Both Horticulture NZ and Federated Farmers have appealed the decision. They claim that the Court failed to properly consider the social and economic costs of imposing nitrogen limits on farmers and growers, despite the Court finding that changes in farming practices are achievable.  Both parties claim that the nutrient management regime will not only hurt farmers and growers, but also consumers, farm employees, rural service industries, and the region’s economy.

It is likely the Plan will not become operative until 2013 at the earliest.  A copy of the Environment Court's decisions can be found here.