DEFRA sets out plans on nutrient neutrality

Plans set out to reduce nutrient pollution in England
Cattle grazing, Llangorse Lake, Brecon Beacons National Park

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has announced plans to reduce nutrient pollution in England.

The plans, it says, will help safeguard protected sites by allowing for the construction of sustainable new homes across the country.

Nutrient pollution is an urgent problem for freshwater habitats and estuaries which provide a home to wetland birds, fish and insects. Increased levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus can speed up the growth of certain plants, disrupting natural processes and devastating wildlife.

Due to excess levels of nutrients in certain English water catchments and as result of complex and bureaucratic EU-derived domestic legislation and case law, Local Planning Authorities can only approve a plan or a project if they are certain it will have no negative effect on legally protected sites for nature.

Natural England, in its statutory role as an adviser on the natural environment, has advised a total of 74 Local Planning Authorities on the nutrient impacts of new plans and projects on protected sites where those protected sites are in unfavourable condition due to excess nutrients.

DEFRA’s plans will see:

  • A new legal duty on water companies in England to upgrade wastewater treatment works by 2030 in ‘nutrient neutrality’ areas to the highest achievable technological levels.
  • A new Nutrient Mitigation Scheme established by Natural England, helping wildlife and boosting access to nature by investing in projects like new and expanded wetlands and woodlands. This will allow local planning authorities to grant planning permission for new developments in areas with nutrient pollution issues, providing for the development of sustainable new homes and ensuring building can go ahead. Defra and DLUHC will provide funding to pump prime the scheme.

The CLA has cautiously welcomed the announcement, but says that nutrient neutrality is still a long way away.

Mark Tufnell, President of the Country Land and Business Association, said:

“We have been calling for action for some time and cautiously welcome this announcement – particularly that government has recognised the need to fund a mitigation scheme of this nature. This package will mean that Natural England will work with planning authorities and other partners to deliver nutrient offsetting affected catchments.

Whilst this is welcome, paying delivery partners to offset pollution should only ever be an interim measure.

CLA President Mark Tufnell

“The issue remains that many landowners have planning applications stuck in the planning system, which is already creaking at the seams. Investment is needed to increase the number of planning officers to reduce the ever-growing backlog. We continue to argue that planning applications related to agricultural developments should be fast-tracked.”