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Murky waters: what comes next for nutrient neutrality?

Scrapping Natural England’s uncompromising regulations could be harder than the government thinks.

By Megan Kenyon

The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust was supposed to welcome a visit from the Levelling-Up Secretary’s team last Wednesday (30 August). But the trip was cancelled the five days earlier.

According to a post on X (formerly Twitter), by the trust’s chief executive Debbie Tann, Michael Gove’s team had been invited to see the work it has been doing around nutrient pollution in the Solent river earlier this year.

But on Friday evening (1 September), Tann was informed they wouldn’t be coming.

One could speculate that the officials’ rain check had something to do with the government’s decision to scrap controversial nutrient neutrality rules, which were announced jointly on Tuesday by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Under the previous rules, advice issued by the non-departmental Natural England said that local planning authorities in areas affected by nutrient pollution may only approve projects if they are certain they will not increase the levels of nutrients in a development’s catchment area. Speculation has abounded for some time as to whether the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, would act to overturn these regulations. It has been pointed out that they are preventing much-needed house-building at a time when the housing crisis is reaching its peak, and it is likely the issue will become a key battleground for both parties in the next election.

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Tuesday’s announcement outlined that, through an amendment in the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, the government will “do away with this red tape” and allow for the delivery of more than “100,000 new homes desperately needed by local communities”. Planning authorities will no longer need to include nutrient neutrality as a material consideration when making a decision about a development.

Alongside the regulation change, there will be a doubling of investment in Natural England’s nutrient mitigation scheme to £280m to offset the “very small amount of additional nutrient discharge” from the homes built as a result. Shortly after the announcement, the government published its planned amendments to the levelling-up bill. But, as Richard Blyth, head of policy and practice at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) pointed out to Spotlight, “nothing can be done” until the bill has received royal assent, and up until now it “has had a very slow process through both houses which is not yet complete”.

[See also: “We need water companies that are fit for purpose”]

There are only eight days of parliamentary time before the House breaks for party conference recess, and less than a month to get the bill through before the King’s Speech on 7 November once the House returns. There is also the question of the 15-20 amendments that have been added to the bill from its passage through the House of Lords.

Blyth said the RTPI is broadly supportive of the removal of the moratorium, which has halted development where nutrient pollution is a consideration. He points to the impact of the regulations on some small and medium-sized builders in affected areas who have been “very seriously impacted by this”.

“Their cashflow has been seriously upset in a way which is much more worrying than the big house-builders,” Blyth said.

But he expressed concern, which is echoed elsewhere, around the detail included in the government’s amendments to the levelling-up bill. “We are quite concerned with the wording,” Blyth said, “because it appears to suggest decision-makers, in terms of making recommendations or decisions, are supposed to describe something as being true which isn’t true.”

For example, one amendment says when making a decision on a planning application, the “competent authority must assume that nutrients in urban wastewater from the potential development… will not adversely affect the relevant site”.

From outside of government, the amendments feel hurried. Ruth Chambers, senior fellow at the Green Alliance think tank echoed these concerns. “It’s clear that this has been rushed on to latch on to the vehicle of the levelling-up bill, rather than doing something deliberative and a bit more consultative,” she said.

Chambers pointed out that no one is arguing nutrient neutrality rules “aren’t capable of being improved” but these improvements need to be looked at properly “and the process not rushed”. She added that “it’s not clear that expert groups like Natural England and the Office for Environmental Protection (OfEP) have been consulted on this”.

Her assessment holds weight. In a statement the OfEP said it believes the “government has not adequately explained how, alongside such weakening of environmental law, new policy measures will ensure it still meets its objectives for water quality and protected site condition”. A lack of clarity around both the amendments and the likelihood of the levelling-up bill going through will likely impact Labour’s position on this issue. A source close to the outgoing shadow levelling-up secretary Lisa Nandy said the party was waiting to see what happens before forming its own stance.

DLUHC has been approached for comment by Spotlight.

[See also: Feargal Sharkey on Britain’s polluted rivers]

This piece has been amended to clarify that the visit to the Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust was intended to be by officials from the Levelling Up department, and not the Levelling up Secretary.

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