Horizons Regional Council was before the Environment Court in Wellington on Monday and Tuesday facing a challenge to its One Plan from the Fish and Game Council, Environmental Defence Society and others. These parties asked the court to rule on the way Horizons granted consents for intensive farming with the key issue being the amount of nitrogen the region's dairy farms have been allowed to leach into waterways and ground water. JAMES LOCKHART looks at the implications.

WHEN a well-intentioned regional council or unitary authority sets out to develop a holistic pathway for the benefit of the physical environment and its community, it exposes itself to risk from unsuspecting quarters.

The case before the Environment Court this week between Horizons (Manawatu-Whanganui Regional Council) and environmental lobby groups Fish and Game New Zealand Council and Environmental Defence Society is a case in point.

Who would have thought that when the One Plan was introduced by the regional council it would be the environmental lobby groups who pursued Horizons to court rather than farmers and other resource users within the region? For it is the environmental groups that are now challenging the way the One Plan has been applied.

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Putting aside measures of environmental quality and the measurement process itself, we now have a case that ought to concern the governors themselves - the elected representatives who have an obligation to the organisation and its ratepayer constituency.

That the case has reached the threshold level of a New Zealand court, and is now consuming another round of scarce resources and scarcer ratepayer funding should provide a grave warning to the elected representatives.

The development of the One Plan took 10 years of debate, discussion and consultation. Horizons cannot be criticised for their process of engagement. It was diligence personified.

However, they may be criticised for not necessarily developing an understanding of the impacts on their rural ratepayer constituency - and bringing them on the journey of their own enlightenment.

And, they can now be criticised for exposing themselves to such complexity that the very measurement and enforcement process that they designed has introduced further litigious risk.

The voices on behalf of the very environment Horizons sought to preserve, protect and enhance have emerged as the first critics of the process not being upheld. Have they got it that badly wrong?

So where does liability lie, and what are the lessons to be learnt going forward? Or, more simply, is the One Plan and other attempts at putting in place an holistic effort of environmental management throughout New Zealand simply too complicated to be effectively enforced?

Either way, the way forward is now littered with difficulties for all parties concerned, and especially the boards that preside over such activities.

Are they suitably equipped to grapple with technical aspects of environmental monitoring and control, let alone to determine absolute levels of performance? Or are the boards largely susceptible to the information asymmetry and capability that exists between themselves and their employees?

Whatever the outcome of the case, the future looks increasingly uncertain. The case denotes a shift in the debate on environmental use in New Zealand from intended outcome to the very processes used to achieve that outcome. Whether or not councillors are suitably equipped for this change remains moot.

But, just like in the governance of organisations elsewhere, a new and enhanced skillset appears necessary.

■James Lockhart, pmsc (Fort Frontenac), MAgSc (Hons), PhD (Auckland), CMInstD, is a senior lecturer at the Massey Business School, Massey University, Palmerston North, with extensive business consulting and executive development experience in Australia, New Zealand and across the Pacific. He farms with his family north of Feilding.
■The Environment Court hearing before Judge Craig Thompson ended on Tuesday and the court's decisions will be released in writing.