As complex as the Horizons Regional Council says One Plan rules are -- and they are -- there was an obvious chasm between what was required and what was being done when it came to nutrient management on dairy farms.

Last week's Environment Court judgment that Horizons had been incorrectly implementing rules around intensive agriculture is no surprise to anyone who has simply checked the consents issued against the regional council's own plan and the Resource Management Act.

It's why the environmental groups were so confident in taking the matter to court. Again.

And it's why in an 81-page decision released this week those same groups were vindicated. Again.

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The Court said Horizons had not been requiring applicants to assess the environmental impact, and applications (for discretionary consents) were not being assessed against the nitrogen leaching maximums in the One Plan.

Nor was Horizons giving reasons for granting consents.

All of which is required.

"Without a reasoned decision, the public (and indeed the council in terms of its decision-making functions and responsibilities) cannot be sure that consents are being issued in a principled and lawful manner," the court said.

That the court came down so heavily on Horizons may, however, have been a surprise to some farmers who should rightly have been able to trust guidance material from the council and industry groups such as Dairy NZ which gave the impression that consents were almost guaranteed and all was above board.

The Horizons Regional Council meets in February to revoke a regulations around One Plan deemed unlawful by the Environment Court.
The Horizons Regional Council meets in February to revoke a regulations around One Plan deemed unlawful by the Environment Court.

A 2013 resolution voted in by councillors, who should have asked tougher questions of council staff, was designed to give consents of up to five years to farmers who were unwilling to reduce nitrogen loss even where it was "both possible and efficient".

Of course, this resolution was revoked by Horizons before the court decision came out but the judges still made a point of clarifying it: "... is unlawful, invalid and in contravention of the RMA to have regard to factors such as those in [the resolution]".

So, what happens now? The first question that needs to be answered is how did it get to this point?

Because there are two scenarios.

One is that Horizons genuinely believed they were granting consents in line with the RMA and the One Plan.

If so that is a big problem because the public needs to know the regional council has sufficient knowledge of the rules to be able to perform its regulatory function properly and without constant, costly legal battles at ratepayers' expense.

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The other scenario is that Horizons understood the rules but chose to deviate from them.

The fact that the council specifically voted in a softer implementation approach suggests this is the case.

There is huge pressure on Horizons to protect farmers' economic interests when its job in this case is actually to protect water for all.

This was made clear during the original Environment Court hearings which preceded the signing of the One Plan and the court was minded to reinforce it again this week.

"Economic consequences for private individuals are an inevitable corollary of regulation in the public interest. That is not a reason to manipulate or pervert plan implementation," the court said.

"In fact, it emphasises the importance of consistent and transparent plan implementation to ensure those consequences are evenly and fairly distributed."

Horizons will say there has been an overall reduction in nitrogen leaching to waterways but even if this is true it's not the point.

That's like a warrant of fitness officer issuing a WOF to a dodgy car and justifying it by saying overall car safety is improving or that the road toll is down.

Rules are rules. And the rules, even more so now, cannot be clearer. How many times will a court have to tell Horizons how to do its job?