Nutrient neutrality works: pollution rules don’t block housebuilding

The Government wants to ditch laws that require housebuilders not to harm rivers. But we know these rules work – they enable houses to be built and rivers to be protected. Here’s how, writes Ali Morse.

Rivers in crisis

The Government’s proposed amendments to the Levelling Up Bill will provide a means of weakening our strongest environmental protections – the Habitats Regulations. These regulations protect our most precious nature sites like the Somerset levels, Norfolk Broads, fragile chalk streams and internationally important wetlands. 

Astonishingly, these changes will require Local Authorities, when making planning decisions, to assume that developments will not damage protected sites – despite their better judgement and own knowledge.  Just as bad, Local Authorities will be obliged to ignore any evidence that suggests otherwise (including, for example, evidence from Government’s own advisors Natural England).  

The Government watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection has warned that these changes “would demonstrably reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in existing environmental law. They are a regression.”  

The new proposals contradict key principles in environmental law – that a precautionary approach should be taken to avoid damage to our most important wildlife sites, and that where harm does occur, the polluter should pay. The measures that Government wants to rely on instead of legal protections are neither sufficient nor secure, and will see taxpayers (and the environment) picking up the bill, whilst developers enjoy an easier ride, and increased profits.  

The proposed removal of river protections has come after much industry lobbying. But claims that this is necessary because the rules created a ‘housing moratorium’ are highly exaggerated. Nutrient neutrality schemes established by Local Authorities and by Natural England, working with local providers, have offset the pollution that new homes would cause, and enabled housebuilding to go ahead. Removing pollution rules places the wildlife of these special places at risk, and flies in the face of the evidence that schemes across the country show development doesn’t have to come at the expense of our rivers.  

Several Wildlife Trusts have worked on projects to reduce pollution across river catchments for nutrient neutrality schemes that unlock new housebuilding. 

Broken promises

Along England’s south coast, the coastal wetlands of the Solent were already suffocating under algal mats fuelled by excess nutrients from farming and wastewater. Over 60,000 new homes were planned in the local area which would add a further burden from wastewater pollution to the already-degraded site. In 2019, Natural England advised Local Authorities there that only if development could offset its nutrient pollution such that it would be ‘nutrient-neutral’ could the authorities be confident that there would be no adverse effect on the protected habitats, and therefore grant planning permission. Calculators were established allowing offset requirements to be worked out, and the first mitigation schemes were established by 2020.  

Debbie Tann, Chief Executive of Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, says: 

“In the Solent region, HIWWT has worked successfully with developers, local government and regulators to develop an effective and affordable nature-based solution which mitigates the environmental effects of new developments. By rewilding unproductive land previously used for intensive agriculture, the Trust is reducing the amount of nutrients ultimately reaching the Solent while also restoring habitats for wildlife and bringing additional environmental gains. The Trust’s first such project, at Wilder Little Duxmore on the Isle of Wight, has demonstrated the rapid and dramatic impact that this pioneering approach can have – with a 47% reduction in soil mineral nitrogen levels recorded in less than two years.”   

“The Nutrient Neutrality rules have been working very well in the Solent area. To scrap them now is a betrayal of promises made by the government to protect the environment. Through our Nutrient Neutrality schemes, we have already proven a cost-effective way to unlock housebuilding while also mitigating the environmental impact of new developments – and those methods have the added benefit of helping people, communities and nature too. The results we have already seen at Wilder Little Duxmore are very significant for the fight against pollution on the south coast.”  

The mitigation scheme on the island was calculated to remove 848kg/N per year from the Solent ecosystem. The Wildlife Trust held back a portion of those credits in order to ensure a reduction, not just an equivalence, in pollution. Despite this, the credits available to sell on could be expected to unlock the building of around 1000 homes, at a cost-per-credit tested up-front with developers who confirmed that the scheme would be eminently affordable.   

Elsewhere in Hampshire, the River Itchen, a world-renowned chalk stream has also been added to the list of sites near-crippled by nutrient pollution. These globally rare rivers are extremely sensitive to elevated nutrient levels, which cause excessive growth of algae that smothers gravel beds and shades out plant growth, impacting the whole ecosystem. Debbie concluded “It’s vital that we have robust measures in place to start tackling this critical issue now as well as into the future. Why should developers be let off the hook and not pay to mitigate their impact?” 

The purchase of Dorset Wildlife Trust’s 170-hectare Wild Woodbury site near Bere Regis was supported by a grant from both Bournemouth Christchurch & Poole Council and Dorset Council, to mitigate the impacts of increases in nitrates due to new housing development in the Poole Harbour catchment. In the two years since Dorset Wildlife Trust took ownership of the site, it has already seen huge increases in wildlife through allowing the land to recover from previous nutrient inputs, and the site has provided mitigation for the building of over 2000 homes. 

Brian Bleese, Dorset Wildlife Trust chief executive says:  

“Nutrient pollution, such as nitrates, is causing massive harm to Dorset rivers and to Poole Harbour. It is vital that we continue to implement nutrient neutrality schemes which provide cost-effective ways to unlock housebuilding while also mitigating the environmental impact of new developments – and those methods have the added benefit of helping people, communities, and nature too.” 

“Our precious rivers and coastal areas are facing untenable levels of pollution from agriculture, industry, and domestic waste, with only 15% in good ecological status. We must have robust measures in place to start tackling this critical issue.  

“Reports that the Government is considering removing or changing the nutrient neutrality requirement for new developments are very concerning and could seriously set back the delivery of schemes similar to our Wild Woodbury initiative.” 

In Norfolk, the River Wensum and the Norfolk Broads are impacted by nutrient pollution, with planning delays there cited as one of the key issues promoting Government’s decision to remove protections. However, prior to Rishi Sunak’s trip to Norfolk, where the weakening of environmental protections was announced, Anglian Water had recently established a not for profit joint venture company with four local planning authorities in order to deliver nutrient mitigation. This local solution meant that the development backlog would have soon been eased, but the sweeping away of these rules pulls the rug out from under this solution.  

Gareth Dalglish, Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Director of Nature Recovery, said:   

“Today’s announcement is terrible news for Norfolk’s wildlife and people. Norfolk is home to nationally and internationally important areas for wildlife, including the iconic wetlands of the Norfolk Broads, and rare chalk rivers including the River Wensum. These areas have already experienced centuries of degradation from sewage and farm pollution and, after today’s announcement, are now likely to become even more polluted by development.”