Considering the plans for nutrient neutrality

The CLA’s Land Use team analyse the UK Government’s latest proposals for nutrient neutrality and explain what it could mean for rural developers and landowners
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This week the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities announced an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) that would see current restrictions on planning applications eased.

Currently, there are restrictions for local authorities to limit nutrient pollution in rivers through the planning permissions they grant, however is estimated that removing restrictions could enable the delivery of more than 100,000 homes between now and 2030. The proposed amendment comes with clarification on the funding that government will allocate to tackle nutrient pollution at source, including from farms.

Nutrient neutrality has impacted 74 local authorities over the past five years and prevented development comprising of overnight accommodation and agricultural projects. The proposed amendment to the LURB will introduce a new section into the 2017 Habitats Regulations that will require local planning authorities to assume that ‘nutrients in urban waste water from proposed development, whether alone or in combination with other factors, will not adversely affect the relevant site’. Additionally, they cannot use further nutrients in waste water on relevant sites as grounds to require appropriate assessments to be carried out (even where there is conflicting evidence or objections). It is anticipated that the House of Lords will consider the amendment on 4 September 2023.

Whilst those facing barriers in the planning system will welcome the proposed amendment, it is controversial among environmental campaigners. Should the amendment be accepted by MPs and Peers, it is probable that it will be challenged in the courts.

Many of the recent media headlines have focused on enabling housing development and ‘cutting red tape’. This misses a key component of the government’s announcement – that it wants to prioritise the biggest sources of nutrient pollution first. The UK Government claims that “the contribution made by new homes is very small”, which justifies axing the nutrient neutrality rules in the Habitats Regulations on the grounds that they are disproportionate and bigger sources of nutrient pollution need fixing. The government’s intention is to “tackle pollution at source”, which largely means wastewater treatment works, combined sewer overflows, and agriculture.

The proposed solutions to tackling the sources of nutrient pollution include the announcement of a £280m investment in Natural England’s Nutrient Mitigation Scheme, which builds on funding committed through the Environmental Improvement Plan (January 2013) and Plan for Water (April 2023). The government has placed an obligation on water companies to upgrade wastewater treatment works and reduce combined sewer overflows through their own revenue.

In addition, £166m has been allocated from the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme budget to reduce runoff from agriculture by providing grants to improve slurry storage and infrastructure. This includes £147m for two new, larger rounds of the Slurry Infrastructure Grant, which will open in Autumn 2023 and 2024, and £21m in two new rounds for slurry management equipment through the Farming Equipment and Technology Fund in early 2024. The CLA and other agricultural stakeholders co-designed the second round of the Slurry Infrastructure Grant with Defra, and we are pleased that the government has confirmed the timelines and budgets for these crucial government grants, meaning farmers in more areas of the country will be able to access them.

A further £25m will be invested in “driving innovation to help farmers manage plant and soil nutrients”, to reduce input costs and improve productivity. The announcement also restated commitments to modernise fertiliser product standards to make it easier to use organic and recycled fertilisers, and to conduct 4,000 targeted farm inspections per year.

Defra’s announcement suggests payment premiums within ELMs, to be introduced from 2024, to encourage the take up of options that provide benefits to water quality. How these will work in practice remains unclear, but the CLA has lobbied Defra for spatially targeted premiums to enable farmers to transition to practices that pollute less. The government therefore appears to be listening to our solutions on this front.

The River Wye received special mention as a uniquely acute and difficult situation. The government has committed to publishing an action plan for the river in Herefordshire in the Autumn and the CLA regional team will continue to take part in discussion on this.

Although nutrient pollution from agriculture is substantial, the government also focuses on water companies, which have been asked to invest much more heavily in upgrading wastewater treatment works by 2030. A mandatory £56bn investment programme for water companies – announced a year ago in the government’s Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan – will tackle the significant pollution from sewer overflows.

In summary

The overall impression is that the government has taken a considered approach to the conflicting needs of the housing building industry and need for environmental protection. The announcement focusses on the causes of nutrient pollution in our rivers and addresses the elements of the legislation that are blocking much-needed housebuilding. However, the CLA’s task will be to ensure that cutting red tape for developers on the grounds of proportionality does not lead to disproportionate consequences in agriculture.