Nutrient neutrality rules that protect water quality are under threat in England. The government argues that 100,000 additional homes will be built in the next decade as a result.

Neutral for now

Excess nutrients into waterways can lead to eutrophication: degraded water quality resulting from excess algae growth. ‘Nutrient neutrality’ is achieved when a development doesn’t input additional nutrients into the watercourse.

Nutrient neutrality rules were put in place in 2017 as a result of the EU Habitats directive.

Since leaving the EU, a derivative of this, the Environment Act, has been in place.

Developers in catchments that are vulnerable to nutrient pollution must show evidence of nutrient neutrality or the development will not proceed.

The nutrient neutrality rules are stringently enforced by Natural England, with nutrient assessments required for all urban developments within problem catchments.

Putting England into reverse

On 29 August 2023, Michael Gove announced proposed revisions to the
levelling up and regeneration bill, including the removal of nutrient neutrality regulations for urban developments.

The text of the revision is explicit:

“When making the decision, the competent authority must assume that nutrients in urban wastewater from the proposed development, whether alone or in combination with other factors, will not adversely affect the relevant site.”

Levelling up and regeneration bill, amendment 247YYA (September 4, 2023)

The government’s stated aim was to clear housebuilding bottlenecks. They claim that approximately 100,000 additional homes will be built across 74 local planning authorities in England over the next decade as a result of their revisions.

74 local planning authorities currently affected by nutrient neutrality l aws will not be required to conduct further assessments if the relevant authority finds that there are potentially adverse effects on nutrient neutrality from urban developments, or grounds to believe that the proposed development will adversely affect the integrity of the site.

It is important to note there are several things other than environmental concerns delaying new housing developments in the UK, such as planning constraints, so the government’s housebuilding target looks optimistic.
However, the revision will certainly remove a key barrier, with south-west England holding the largest collection of catchments affected by nutrient neutrality.

Difficulties downstream

The bill only affects England, but when waterways cross borders, new concerns arise. Cross-border catchments, such as the River Wye, already renowned for its poor water quality, are potentially at increased risk from these changes.

Acknowledging this, the government have stated a renewed commitment to developing a bespoke River Wye Action Plan, in collaboration with Natural Resources Wales.

Other cross-border catchments have not received such attention.

The government case

The government argues that industry, agriculture and existing houses are the most significant nutrient polluters, and that farm-fertilizer pollution and water-company sewage are key culprits. In their view, the need for houses outweighs the small downside of the pollution risk from new developments.

The Environment Agency estimates that 40% of waterbodies are polluted by agriculture and rural land management, and 36% by wastewater. It is argued that nutrient pollution from new houses is minor compared to these polluting giants.

They estimate that 16,500 homes per year are affected by nutrient neutrality legislation; over 100,000 homes by the end of the decade. These additional homes are to reach their target of 300,000 new homes a year.

These additional homes are expected both to house the UK’s growing population and boost the UK economy by £18 bn.

The revised bill will undeniably increase nutrient pollution, however minor. The government is attempting to offset this increase by investing more in other environmental schemes, including a pledged £280 million (double the previous value) to Natural England to expand its nutrient mitigation scheme.

In response to concerns of increased sewage the government have also reiterated their commitment to the 69% P (phosphorous) reduction and 57% N (nitrogen) reduction estimation (2030) from sewage outlets.

The bill only effects urban wastewater. All other developments such as manufacturing, and agriculture still require nutrient neutrality tests and mitigation methods. Nutrient neutrality laws will still be retained in all these developments.

The outrage of others

Many NGOs are opposed to the government’s amendment.

The Rivers Trust has described the plans as “ripping up water pollution rules”.

The RSPB has said that scrapping nutrient neutrality rules would be a “national scandal”.

The Office for Environmental Protection believes that the “proposed changes would demonstrably reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in existing environmental law”.

Many feel that the government are removing environmental regulations for economic gain. Key concerns include how much new housing will add to
sewage networks that are often already overburdened and how much increases in surface-water pollution from developments will alter the water environment.

Abandonment of nutrient neutrality is also expected to impact nutrient cred it schemes set up to allow developers to purchase environmental credits to counterbalance their pollution. Without a requirement for credits, how uncertain will companies be to invest in these schemes?

The last word

With the condition of only 36% of the UK’s surface-water bodies ‘good’
or better, it is critical to improve UK water quality and prevent further deterioration.

Alternative proposals exist to use nature-based solutions to:

  • help new developments conform to nutrient neutrality
  • help reach biodiversity targets
  • alleviate flood risk
  • improve water quality and quantity.

However, these alternatives plans may take years to come into effect.

In the meantime, in mid September 2023 the House of Lords rejected the
revised bill and its apparent balancing act of additional housebuilding versus offsets to generated pollution through other schemes. The timescale for change is uncertain and could be years away. The industry is in a state of flux.

As the revised bill is yet to become law, the changes are not yet final. The legal requirement for nutrient neutrality is still in place until the Government can find an alternative solution to removing the requirement.