Not since its formation in 1989 has a draft plan of the Hawke's Bay Regional Council caused so much interest. Obviously, this is a reaction to the proposed substantial increase in the rate strike, but backgrounded by the growing concern for our environmental health.

Environmentally, these are challenging times.

Everywhere, those in governance must accommodate the public's expectations of affluence with material sacrifice that environmentalism demands.

Environmentalism comes at a cost. Nevertheless, such a big-hit rate increase when inflation is low will be counter-productive if it weakens the constituency's confidence in the council and creates an adversarial atmosphere.

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Every section of the community has an obligation to work in one way or another for a more sustainable environment as every one of us pollutes.

However, more than any other single factor, our environment will stand or fall on the commitment of the region's farmers, simply because about 60% of our land area outside
the conservation estate is in farmland.

And it's rather disingenuous for the council to dismiss this rate increase as ''a cup of coffee a week''. For rural ratepayers it will be much more than that.

Farmers have worked to lift environmental standards, but seem to never quite catch up to ever-rising community expectations.

Conceded, not everything on the farm is acceptable, and images of such quickly gain currency. That's okay, but there's plenty of worthy work environmentalists seem hesitant to acknowledge.

Inspiring examples of initiatives as the QEII National Trust, Balance Environmental Awards, Farmer of the Year and Farm Forester of the Year Fieldays and such seemingly feature little in environmental activists and regional council conversations. (Recently a councillor even went so far as to actually diminish one of the best privately funded farm wetland enhancements in Hawke's Bay.)

Since its formation, the HBRC has worked hard to establish goodwill with the farming community based on education and inspiration, reserving regulation as a necessary backstop.

This is a vital and potent force for the region's environmental good works.

The council should tread carefully; reputation, laboriously built, can be quickly lost. Such a large rate-rise would haemorrhage much of that goodwill.

One of the more suspect intentions is the so-call ''Future Farming'' initiative, hitherto characterised as ''smart farming''.

This is to establish ''an engine'' to gather agricultural science and make it available to farmers. This looks like the council presuming to take farmers by the hand and lead them into the promised land of farm management idealism. Come on!

This is rather condescending, if not insulting. The regional council is not the brokerage of agricultural intelligence.

Farmers who want to uptake knowledge know where to go for science and inspiring examples of good works.

There's a new term in international vernacular; ''soft power'' – the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without coercion.

This is just the kind of power the council needs to further develop and apply to its cause.

A motivated citizenry is the ultimate weapon the council has to achieve the objective we all want: a sustaining environment for those who follow.

For the reasons explained above, this especially obligates those who steward our rural land.

If you want to see just one example of motivation voluntarily achieving great things on private land at minimal public cost, look at the achievements over 40 years of the above-mentioned QEII National Trust.

Pride and the admiration of one's peers are powerful motivators. That is why the ownership of a QEII covenant is proudly indicated by a sign at the front gate. That's soft power.

The council should vigorously develop a relationship with a collection of commercial and environmental bodies that have a stake in the rural environment, along with Federated Farmers as the sector's ownership organisation.

The council intends to borrow $30 million over the next decade to fund riparian fencing and forestry planting initiatives.

But if it, or part of it, were to establish such a coalition to inspire rural landowners to willingly do the good work, the return for the dollar would be far greater.

Regional council staff are dedicated and do a good job – we're lucky to have them. But will the increases achieve action out in the heartland, where it really matters? I have my doubts.

Ewan McGregor is a former deputy chairman of the Hawke's Bay Regional Council. Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: editor@hbtoday.co.nz.