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Nutrient Neutral Pollution Rules to be Scrapped

nutrient neutral

The Government has announced that water pollution restrictions for new housing developments are set to be scrapped in order for more houses to be built. The restrictions, which were brought in when the UK was part of the European Union (EU), make it difficult for new developments to be built near waterways.

Nutrient neutral projects

As part of existing restrictions, developers must prove that their projects are “nutrient neutral” in order to be able to build new homes. To get past this, builders effectively need to prove that any new development won’t add extra nutrients to the surrounding water.

Flooding waterways with phosphates and nitrates, which often come with the territory of building new properties, can reduce the quality of water and harm the natural habitats of wildlife in the waterways.

As things stand, 62 local authorities are bound by these laws, including Somerset, Kent and Teeside. However, today the government has announced that these local authorities will no longer have to abide by the “nutrient neutral” rules which will accelerate builds in these areas.

The scrapping of the rule is part of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which is currently going through amendments in the House of Lords. By removing it, the government believes that the country will benefit from an extra £18bn of economic activity.

Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said: “These new plans will cut nutrients and help support England’s precious habitat whilst unlocking the new homes that local communities need.”

The environmental downside

Removing a law that was put in place to protect waterways and the environment has meant that the Government has had to provide assurances that significant damage won’t be done. Firstly, they’ve announced that they are to double their investment in the Natural England Nutrient Mitigation Scheme to £280m.

They will also provide an extra £166m in grants to farmers so they can improve their slurry storage. This time of storage is used to prevent excess nutrients running off into rivers and wetland, something that is now likely to increase.

Environmental groups haven’t responded well to the announcement, with the Wildlife Trust’s chief executive Craig Bennett saying that won’t “solve root causes of the housing problem.” Meanwhile, the Rivers Trust have said that “the latest plans to rip up water pollution rules show, once again, that our Government is backtracking on the environment and taking decisions that abandon previous commitments and promises, and ones which our European neighbours enjoy.

“We do not need to choose between new homes and clean water, we can have both. Now is the time to develop homes responsibly, working with house builders who want to find positive solutions to achieving nutrient neutrality.”

The housing upside

While Environmental groups are concerned by the decision, housing groups are more supportive of it. The government believes that around 100,000 new homes will be built by 2030 with Rishi Sunak labelling the former sanctions as “disproportionate and poorly targeted old EU ruling.”

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, suggested that the law change was overdue because “occupants of new homes are responsible for only a tiny fraction of the wastewater finding its way into rivers and streams.”

Meanwhile, the Local Government Association (LGA) has taken a more balanced approach. A statement on their website reads:

“Thousands of new homes are on hold due to river pollution and water level concerns so we are pleased that the Government has acted on our calls for urgent action and funding to address pollution at source.

“However, short-term local solutions are still needed to address environmental concerns about river pollution. Councils are calling for a doubling down on long-term action to protect rivers by focusing on reducing pollution at source.

“Councils want to work together with government, agencies, developers and the agricultural sector to find ways address pollution locally so homes can be built while doing everything possible to reduce pollution at source and maintain safe water level.”

Final thought

The decision to scrap the “nutrient neutral” restrictions for new housing developments near waterways has sparked a debate between environmental groups and housing advocates. The government’s pledge to double its investment in Natural England’s Nutrient Mitigation Scheme and provide grants to farmers for improved slurry storage is seen as a positive step, but some argue that it is not enough to mitigate the potential environmental impact. Ultimately, the decision highlights the complex balancing act between economic growth and environmental protection, and the need for sustainable solutions that prioritise both.

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