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Publish date

1 September 2023

No more nutrient neutrality? What do developers need to know?

On 29 August 2023 the Department for Levelling up Housing and Communities (LUHC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced that they will be proposing amendments to Natural England’s nutrient neutrality requirements to – in the words of the Government’s own press release on the matter – “reform defective EU laws”, with a view to mitigating the impact that the requirements have had, and continue to have on housebuilding in the UK.

By making amendments to Natural England’s requirements the Government stated that up to 100,000 new homes could be built by 2030, delivering an estimated £18 billion boost to the economy.

Please find the link to the Government announcement – here.

What is nutrient neutrality?

In freshwater habitats increased levels of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can speed up the growth of certain plants, which can have a detrimental impact on their surrounding environment.

In March 2022 Natural England advised Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) that, where certain sites within designated catchments are impacted by nutrient pollution, development must only go ahead if it is “nutrient neutral” i.e. will not add to nutrient pollution – this was off of the back of a review by Natural England of the habitats which transpose various aspects of EU-derived Directives.

This initiative has had wide reaching effect on developers, particularly impacting their ability to obtain and implement planning permission. It has also caused delays for LPAs and arguably limited the amount of new homes under construction – cumulatively this has caused a significant problem for LPAs, developers, and people in need of houses.

Please find the link to our previous articles on nutrient neutrality here and here.

How will the Government make the proposed changes?

The Government has proposed amendments to the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill in order to make the necessary changes. We do not yet have the details of the changes to be made to nutrient neutrality requirements. However, it is due to come before the House of Lords imminently.

Generally, it appears the idea is not to look at each development individually but to fund larger strategic off-site mitigation projects (though for example Section 106 Agreements).

The Government has also pointed to new environmental measures that will tackle pollution at the source and restore habitats. The new proposed measures include:

  • Doubling investment in the “Nutrient Mitigation Scheme” to ensure it is a sufficient mechanism to offset the additional nutrient discharge attributable by new homes (for information on this scheme click here)
  • Requiring appropriate contributions from developers to the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme
  • Accelerating work on full site restoration through work on new “Protected Site Strategies”, in consultation with Natural England which will partner with local communities to set protected sites on the path to recovery in the most affected catchments with the most acute housing demand
  • Reducing nutrients entering the water from new developments, with new laws to drive innovation and investment from water companies to update wastewater treatment works to higher technical standards by 2030
  • Investing £200m in grants for improved slurry storage infrastructure and precision spreading equipment to reduce nutrient run off into our rivers from farms
  • Investing £25m to drive innovation to help farmers manage plant and soil nutrients
  • Introducing payment premiums from 2024 into environmental land management schemes
  • Consulting on new requirements for sustainable drainage solutions to reduce pressure on storm overflows from new homes and flood risk.

The Government still aims to reduce nutrient run off from agriculture by at least 40% by 2038 and by 15% in nutrient neutrality catchments by 2028 and to reduce phosphorus loadings from wastewater by 80% by 2038, and by 50% by 2028.

These changes are certainly controversial with groups such as Greenpeace and the Wildlife Trust terming them “disgraceful” and feeling that the Government has “given up” on our waterways. However, other stakeholders, and in particular those in the housing and economic industries have welcomed the move calling it a “very welcome shakeup”.


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