Pixabay River and Farmland Photo

Easing the Nutrient Neutrality Log Jam?

With an estimated 150,000 homes caught up in the planning system as a result of their inability to demonstrate ‘Nutrient Neutrality’, a recent DEFRA announcement may come as a small light at the end of a very long tunnel for developers and house builders affected by this situation.

The Nutrient Neutrality issue centres on nitrates and phosphates entering the water system and making their way to sensitive habitat areas, leading to eutrophication and damage to these protected sites. It is estimated that housing development accounts for just 1% of the problem, however, Natural England advise that where protected sites are in an unfavourable condition, due to excess nutrients, development within the catchment should only go ahead if it will not cause additional pollution. This advice now effects 74 Local Planning Authorities. This has effectively led to a moratorium on residential development in many of these areas, as neutrality, particularly on smaller sites, is often not practical to achieve. The Government’s failed attempt to remove the planning system from the problem, through amendments via the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, is well documented.

The DEFRA announcement however shifts the onus to ensure neutrality, from the developer, to the water company.

It identifies the 18 phosphorous sensitive catchment areas and 12 nitrogen sensitive catchment areas and goes on to confirm that in these catchment areas: ‘Water companies have a duty to ensure wastewater treatment works serving a population equivalent over 2,000 meet specified nutrient removal standards by 1 April 2030’.

It goes on to add that: ‘Competent authorities (including local planning authorities) considering planning proposals for development draining via a sewer to a wastewater treatment works subject to the upgrade duty are required to consider that the nutrient pollution standard will be met by the upgrade date for the purposes of Habitats Regulations Assessments’.

A ‘limited exemption’ process will be completed by 1 April 2024, when wastewater treatment works exemptions will be confirmed.

On the face of it, this all seems positive and seeks to reduce the burden on developers having to achieve nutrient neutrality themselves, however as with all these things, the devil will be in the detail and it raises a number of questions about how (and when) this will work in practice. Whilst Local Authorities and Natural England will, from April, be required to ‘take the 2030 infrastructure improvements into account’ when determining applications, it doesn’t go so far as to say what ‘taking into account’ actually means in practical terms. Whilst it is unlikely that in the interim period, housing development will not need to secure any nutrient mitigation, it is not clear what level of concessions may be offered to developers from day 1 (April 1st). We may have to wait until the Spring to find out exactly what this legislation may achieve. Watch this space!

The details of the Notice are available on the following link: https://www.gov.uk/government/...