With most farms in the Waikato-Waipa region about to become involved in the Plan Change 1 hearing process to defend their right to farm, I find it ironic the region's largest farmer, Wairakei Pastoral Ltd (WPL), is working — sneakily in my view — to push through a non-notifiable resource consent. This will lock in its rights to swap existing low-intensity land use for a more intensive use, resulting in increased catchment pollution for a long time.
Plan Change 1 (PC1) is to give effect to the Treaty settlement to improve water quality in the region. A preferential consent to WPL, if granted, is not only totally at odds with this objective but will penalise other land users who will be required to provide headroom to offset the WPL increase in pollution. This situation is an affront to those who don't have the opportunity to compete on the same playing field and rulebook.
"This highlights how a grandparenting policy to manage nitrogen within PC1 incentivises perverse behaviour."
In an article in the NZ Local Government magazine last year, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, QC, was highly critical of the performance of councils.
His key points were:
* The performance of local government in relation to the environment appears to be 'seriously deficient'.
* Local government must not be pushed around by powerful economic interests whose activities pollute.
* And 'what is at stake here are the interests of future generations whose interests the Resource Management Act is explicitly designed to protect'.
Palmer's concerns about 'powerful economic interests' directly apply to Waikato Regional Council as it considers the non-notifiable resource consent application from WPL, an Auckland-based corporate.
It is important to note that WPL in partnership with Landcorp was able to expand its forest-to-farm conversions because of the ETS arbitrage scheme which enabled carbon prices to collapse. In a state of paralysis, the regional council and the Crown didn't apply a land-use change moratorium, despite science indicating that contaminant loss discharge from the new intensified land use would impact water quality.
WPL obtained a Certificate of Compliance to give notice of its intent before the regional council notification of PC1 then earlier this year applied for a resource consent. By doing this, it will be able to get around the rigours of PC1, which has a rule banning change of land use, and also locks in a nitrogen allocation determined across the entire WPL land area.
All eyes should be on the regional council. Its credibility is at stake as it works through the consent to convert 1800ha currently in forestry and drystock to more intensified use likely to be a mix of dairy and some drystock.
If granted, it will give WPL certainty to farm with an additional allocation of nitrogen, which will convert into a tradeable property right. This will give the whole WPL estate a right to pollute to an estimated value of $210 million.
This highlights how a grandparenting policy to manage nitrogen within PC1 incentivises perverse behaviour, where the focus is on accumulating wealth through nitrogen allocation rather than on farming within the ecosystem health limits of soil types and landscapes.
WPL is farming on pumice soils which provide easy passage of nitrogen to ground water then to waterways which could cause serious environmental harm.
When previous governments allowed forestry to farm conversions to proceed, most to intensive dairy, they did so knowing a significant load of nitrogen and other contaminants would make its way to Waikato River.
I would suggest this is now readily observable in the monitoring of groundwater bores and assessing the nitrate trends since the original land conversions began 15-20 years ago.
The failure to impose a land-use change moratorium some years ago was a display of feebleness and irresponsibility and now we may have more of the same.
Neighbouring land users could ultimately be out of pocket if there is a requirement to reduce contaminant loss. This could arise as PC1 moves to Plan Change 2, and so on, with sinking lid on allowable contaminant loss in the quest to improve water quality and possibly provide headroom for other land users — for example Maori-owned Central North Island forests.
Of interest is the additional pressures this land-use change will have in the future, including the need to manage greenhouse gases and biodiversity.
Central and local governments are tasked with the responsibility to act for the 'common good' of our communities, the economics of our farm systems and the environment in a balanced manner, and this is laid out in the RMA legislation ensuring outcomes are equitable, fair and sustainable.
This is also outlined in the Brundtland Report 1987 'Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs' and again enshrined as part of the Treaty settlements with river iwi.
The question I now ask is whether the regional council will act for the 'common good' for all Waikato people or bow down in servitude to the Big Business Auckland corporates.
Rick Burke is chairman of Farmers for Positive Change.