As part of legislation building off the Environment Act target to halt species decline by 2030, the Government and Natural England are taking action to reduce nutrient pollution in waterways by way of nutrient neutrality.
Pollution in waterways can cause eutrophication, where excessive levels of nutrients, including phosphates and nitrates, cause sudden increases in vegetation which creates low-oxygen environments that can kill fish and seagrass. Nutrient neutrality is the name given for the policy by which the Government aims to minimise nutrient pollution in these waterways.
Nutrient neutrality affects 74 LPAs, making up 14% of England’s land area in places such as the South Downs and New Forest in the south, parts of Norfolk, the Malvern Hills, and areas further north including the east of Dumfries, Galloway and Middlesbrough.
The Government aims to address nutrient neutrality through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB), to require wastewater treatment works to be upgraded to the highest technically achievable limits, mainly for the dominant nutrient/s causing pollution. The new limits in the 2030 statutory bill include a 31x reduction in phosphate pollution, from 8mg/l to 0.25mg/l, and a 2.7x reduction in nitrates, from 27mg/l to 10mg/l. This is focused on removing nutrient pollution at its source, to limit its secondary effects.
The intended reductions must be secured for the lifetime of the development, which is considered by Natural England to be 80-120 years.
Impacts on Development
Planning applications will have to demonstrate their ability to meet these nutrient neutrality targets until 2030, when it shall become the wastewater treatment works’ responsibility. Efforts may have to be made to ensure that residential development sewage flows are able to be adequately treated.
Some developments have received granting of planning permission but still require post-permission approval. These developments must still comply with Habitats Regulations Assessments.
Each affected catchment will receive a £100,000 grant to support cross-local authority work and to establish catchment-wide approaches to mitigation.
Natural England intends to create a Nutrient Mitigation Scheme (NMS) alongside DEFRA and the DLUHC. With this, developers in nutrient neutrality areas will be able to purchase “nutrient credits” that discharge requirements to provide mitigating measures, making the demonstration of nutrient neutrality easier. Specific conditions are applied to these, such as the fact all necessary nutrient credits must be purchased before new homes are occupied. It is currently somewhat unclear what percentage of neutrality can be funded by these credits in place of actual waste reduction.
The nutrient neutrality target limits of wastewater pollution can be seen as a very beneficial policy to help protect our environment for years to come. Setting targets at the technically achievable limit may create a culture of adaptation that protects the environment.
Allowing developers to purchase nutrient credits for development can be viewed in a positive or negative light. Nutrient credits will make it easier for developers to gain planning permission to develop, especially for residential use; but also puts in place a potential precedent to ignore changes to legislation and instead use finance to continue producing the same type of buildings that are becoming out of date.
Overall, nutrient neutrality’s changes regarding target nutrient pollution reduction will help solve species decline in water-based habitats. As support for movements that involve protection of the environment increase, it is nicely timed to receive widespread support from citizens and community groups, though will require more work to go into planning applications, a system that has already been found to be the single largest obstacle to residential development
Figure 1 – Natural England Catchment Plan. Source = Natural England Letter 16 March 2022
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