What is Nutrient Neutrality and Why is it Big News?

If you’ve been listening to the news this week, you might have heard a few mixed opinions on the proposed amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that is currently being considered in the UK House of Lords.

What does this have to do with nutrient neutrality, and why is it making waves among housing developers and environmentalists? Let’s delve into the details.

What is Nutrient Neutrality?

Nutrient neutrality is a regulatory measure designed to prevent new construction and land use from causing detrimental increases in harmful nutrients within UK watercourses. If protected sites are already in an “unfavourable” state, any development planning to discharge nutrients into these areas must offset the impact. This can also affect planning permission and lead to delays in the application process.

How Does Nutrient Neutrality Affect Housing Developments?

The nutrient neutrality rules were put in place in 2017 when the UK was still a member of the EU. The original guidelines say that in dozens of protected areas across England, local authorities should not give the go-ahead to any new housing development that is projected to add to river nutrients such as phosphates and nitrates, either through wastewater from new homes or run-off from building sites.

What’s the Problem with Nutrient Neutrality?

The UK Government has recognised that, “The need to address pollution on these sites is impacting permissions for development and slowing down housing delivery across 74 local planning authorities.”  They estimate that over 100,000 homes are currently being blocked due to these guidelines. Developers also argue that delays are unsustainable, and housing is being held to blame even though farmland could be a far bigger contributor to the pollution in question.

Areas in the UK Impacted by Nutrient Neutrality?

Natural England has issued advice for 31 habitats sites, spanning 27 catchments and a total of 74 local planning authorities (wholly or in part). This advice says that as these sites are in unfavourable condition due to excess nutrient pollution, projects and plans may only go ahead if the increase in wastewater that is produced by the assumed population increases, from developments, will not cause additional pollution.

Proposed Amendment and Its Implications

Through an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, developers will no longer have to offset the nutrient pollution caused by sewage from new homes delivery, and it is expected developers could begin construction on more than 100,000 blocked homes in a matter of months.  

Executive Chair of the Home Builders Federation, Stewart Baseley, has reacted with delight, saying: “Today’s very welcome announcement has the potential to unlock housing delivery across the country, from Cornwall to the Tees Valley, where housebuilding has been blocked despite wide acknowledgement that occupants of new homes are responsible for only a tiny fraction of the wastewater finding its ways into rivers and streams. The industry is eager to play its part in delivering mitigation and protecting our waterways. We look forward to engaging with government on the right way to do so, now that ministers are acting upon the arguments that builders both large and small have been making for so long. Builders will be able to bring forward otherwise stalled investment in communities and get spades in the ground, so we need parliament to get this solution on to the statute book.”

Environmental Concerns

While the proposed amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill offers hope for accelerated housing development, it also raises environmental concerns. Environmentalists worry that relaxed nutrient neutrality rules may lead to increased pollution in vulnerable watercourses. The government, however, has promised increased funding to the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme run by Natural England.

What’s Next for Housing Developers?

Until the amendment is passed, nothing changes and developers applying for planning in a nutrient-neutral area will still have to demonstrate via a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) that the development will not increase the level of nutrients in the environment.

If the amendment is passed, it means housing developers, whilst having much to celebrate, are also going to be under a huge amount of scrutiny from both the public and environmental groups and best practice will be more important than ever.

Drainage Solutions for Housing Developments in the South East

As planning for new housing developments is unlocked, getting your drainage systems and paperwork in order will be vital. PDS are specialists in sewer connections and diversions and approved contractors for Thames Water, Anglian Water and Southern Water. If you need advice on drainage solutions for new development planning applications, call us, and we’ll be happy to help.

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