Nutrient neutrality

The Chancellor’s 2023 spring Budget included a number of reforms and spending promises designed to improve the planning system in England. This included greater support for nutrient neutrality in response to nutrient pollution which is “a major barrier to the government’s ambition of delivering 300,000 homes per year”.

What is “nutrient neutrality”?

Nutrient neutrality is where the level of nutrients, particularly phosphates and nitrates, entering into the water system does not increase existing nutrient levels. Heightened levels of nutrients (or nutrient pollution) are a significant cause of biodiversity decline in the UK, particularly in freshwater habitats, and are mainly caused by the ingress of wastewater from developments and agriculture.

As many freshwater habitats are protected under legislation, where a proposed development could impact on a protected habitat, Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) must consider nutrient pollution in the environmental impact assessment. LPAs will only approve developments that can demonstrate nutrient neutrality and must reject proposals that would increase pollution levels in protected areas.

How is nutrient neutrality achieved?

Nutrient neutrality is achieved by offsetting or mitigating nutrient pollution through measures such as sustainable drainage or the creation of wetlands and woodlands to absorb the nutrients. Nutrient credit trading schemes measures, where developers can purchase credits to offset nutrient pollution, are also being introduced through a Nutrient Mitigation Scheme launched in late 2022.

Why is the government offering more support for nutrient neutrality?

The need to mitigate nutrient pollution is “stalling housing delivery across 74 Local Planning Authorities” by increasing the risk, cost and time involved in developments, and decreasing the number of developments achieving planning permission. Furthermore, the demand for mitigation measures is currently outstripping supply.

Nutrient neutrality also supports the targets set out in the Environment Act to halt the decline of species by 2030 and to reduce water pollution.

What measures have been proposed by the Budget?

While no concrete measures were proposed in the Budget, the government announced “a call for evidence for locally led nutrient neutrality credit schemes” and “funding to support clearer routes for housing developers to deliver ‘nutrient neutral’ sites, in line with their environmental obligations”.

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