In March 2022, 42 local authorities were surprised by the news that they would now fall under nutrient neutrality legislation, causing planning permission applications to grind to a halt and triggering fears of an under-delivery of new homes.

But what exactly is nutrient neutrality, and what can developers expect going forward?

A little bit of background

When we talk about ‘nutrients’, we are chiefly referring to phosphates and nitrates. They are naturally occurring and are important components in the ecosystems of our waterways. However, if their concentration in rivers and other bodies of water becomes too high, they can speed up the growth of algae and other plants, a process known as eutrophication. This can have a negative effect on local wildlife and habitats, causing significant damage.

These nutrients can enter local rivers, waterways and estuaries in high quantities from agricultural land thanks to animal waste or the use of fertilisers, but it can also originate from the wastewater of houses and businesses, and from the surface water that runs off during construction works.

Concern about the levels of nutrients in our waterways is not new. However, the matter has been given greater urgency following the January 2022 publication of a report by the Environmental Audit Committee. It found that English rivers were heavily polluted by both sewerage and pollution from roads and agriculture. Indeed, the situation was found to be so serious that only 14% of England’s rivers were declared to be of ‘good’ ecological status.

As a result, an additional 42 local authorities have been told that they now govern catchment areas that fall under nutrient neutrality legislation, joining an existing 32 catchment areas. This means that developments they approve have to preserve the nutrient balance of the local area by ensuring that the amount of nutrients entering local waterways are offset, or neutralised, by the removal of an equivalent amount.

What does this mean for affected developments?

The legislation primarily affects new developments that are seeking to provide overnight accommodation. This includes:

  • Homes
  • Student accommodation
  • Care homes
  • Tourist accommodation such as hotels

As a general rule, developments that are replacing existing dwellings are excluded, as are developments such as offices and schools.

Because of the sudden increase in the number of catchment areas covered by the legislation, local planning authorities have halted or put significant delays on timescales for developments that are currently still awaiting planning permission. This is because they now have to be sure that a new development will not adversely affect local nutrient levels.

To make this assessment, developments that fall into the highlighted category will now have to do the following:

  • Provide a Habitats Regulations Assessment to their local planning authority.
  • Use a Natural England Nutrient Budget Calculator to help them understand the impact of their proposed development.
  • Wait for the results of an Appropriate Assessment, which will be carried out by the local planning authority. This will enable them to ensure that the development will not have a negative effect on nutrient neutrality.

If a proposed development is found to lead to an unbalancing of local nutrient levels, mitigation strategies will need to be put in place.

How can nutrient neutrality be mitigated?

Natural England generally recommends that mitigation strategies are made at a local level by local authorities, which will help multiple developments and make significant improvements to the local area. This can include transferring land into wetland, updating sewerage treatment and changing the use of agricultural land.

Some catchment areas have also created and launched their own nutrient credit systems, which function like a carbon off-setting plan. This means that developers can ‘buy’ nutrient credits to off-set their development’s contribution to nutrient levels, which will then be mitigated by wider scope changes such as the ones outlined above.

However, these strategies can take a long while to put into operation and the very newest catchment areas are therefore unlikely to be able to provide them as options for developers for some time. In this scenario, developers may have to invest in land to leave fallow or create wetland.

If your development has been affected by this update, it is best to prepare for a delay on your application. And if you have questions about your application’s status or possible local solutions for nutrient neutrality, speak to your local authority.

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