River pollution has been a hot topic over the past couple of weeks in the national press.
What is all the fuss about?
Currently, the EU-derived Conversation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (the Regulations) protect England’s most fragile river systems, such as the River Stour in Kent. According to the Rivers Trust, only 14% of rivers in England are in good ecological health and every single river fails to meet chemical standards.
Poor river health has serious consequences for aquatic life and raises human health implications. Chemicals used in agriculture, transport and the release of raw sewage by water authorities all contribute to the decline in river health. The UK currently faces a housing crisis with the Government setting targets to deliver up to 300,000 new homes each year. Whilst new homes are desperately needed, the impact of increased wastewater outputs from those new homes and surface water run-off from building sites results in further pressures on an already fragile river system.
In 2022, there were over 389,000 instances of untreated sewage discharge into UK rivers, resulting in the UK being consistently ranked as one of the worst countries in Europe for water quality. Whilst new housing developments are not responsible for these discharges, the wastewater from new sites will undoubtedly contribute to the burden on our sewage systems and ultimately result in increased nutrient output into our rivers.
The Regulations introduced the concept of “nutrient neutrality”, a means of ensuring that a proposed development or project does not add to existing nutrient burdens within certain river catchments. A development would achieve nutrient neutrality by mitigating the nutrient load created by developments from the additional wastewater. In order to obtain planning permission developers must be able to demonstrate that their development contains mitigation schemes either on-site or elsewhere within river catchments to achieve nutrient neutrality. Such schemes can include investment in new wetlands or the creation of buffer zones along rivers and other watercourses to prevent nutrients entering the river systems.
It has been reported, that the need for developers to achieve nutrient neutrality has resulted in the building of as many as 120,000 new homes being put on hold as Natural England is enforcing the rules in a strict manner. Clearly, this was a concern for the Government as it affects its ability to deliver on its new homes target.
What did the Government want to do about river pollution?
Late last month, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling up, Housing and Communities, announced plans to ease water pollution rules for house builders. The purpose being to make it easier for developers to obtain planning permission as there would no longer be a need to achieve nutrient neutrality.
Michael Gove stated, “We are committed to building the homes this country needs and to enhancing our environment. The way EU rules have been applied has held us back. These changes will provide a multi-billion pound boost for the UK economy and see us build more than 100,000 new homes.”
Developers welcomed the announcement with the CEO of Taylor Wimpey, Jennie Daly saying, “We are pleased that the government is proposing to address this important issue and is taking steps to reduce barriers to development. This will help deliver the country’s much-needed new homes, which make a significant contribution to the wider economy.”
However, environmentalists did not welcome the announcement with Paul Miner from the Campaign to Protect Rural England saying, “Michael Gove’s plans to relax nutrient neutrality rules represent a huge threat to our waterways, a fundamental feature of our countryside as well as a vital wildlife habitat”, “we urge Michael Gove to rethink these damaging and regressive proposals.”
The planned relaxation of the Regulations would have been of no benefit to farmers with agricultural developments such as new barns, slurry stores and rearing units as nutrient neutrality rules would continue to apply to them. Arguably, the planned relaxation could lead to further measures being placed on farmers to reduce nutrient pollution.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts said, “These rules are about preventing pollution, not housing. Piling on pollution from developers into rivers already suffocating from poo and agriculture pollution, will only mean greater pressure is put on farmers to make bigger and faster cuts to nutrient pollution.”
What is the current position on nutrient neutrality?
Well, the plan did not last long. Opposition parties and environmental campaigners said that the planned easing of water pollution rules would lead to even more issues in the country’s waterways.
On 13 September, the Conservative party amendment to the Regulations, which would have been included in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, was rejected by peers in the House of Lords due to the risk it poses to the environment.
Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour party, said “There are far better ways to build the new homes we desperately need than green-lighting water pollution.”
So, for now, our fragile river system will continue to benefit from the protection of the Regulations. The overruling of the relaxation of the Regulations is good news for farmers as the threat of further measures to achieve nutrient neutrality will, for the time being, not fall to farmers to implement.
We will have to wait and see what plans Michael Gove has up his sleeve to deliver on the Government’s new homes target.
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