What next for nutrient neutrality rules?

Published by Des Sudworth on 16 February 2024

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This series will cover the latest issues affecting developers, including nutrient neutrality, water neutrality and biodiversity net gain.

Our first topic that we are going to explore will outline and discuss the current situation regarding nutrient neutrality rules. 

The lack of guidance on the far-reaching nutrient neutrality regulations continues to frustrate residential developers. Government efforts to ease those frustrations towards the end of 2023 have now effectively been shelved. 

Where does that leave developers with plans to bring forward much-needed new homes? 

Nutrient pollution is without doubt a serious issue that is having an often-detrimental impact on valued natural habitats. Its causes are broadly attributed to residential homes, surface water run-off from development and agriculture. 

So serious is the problem that Natural England advised local planning authorities that development should only go ahead if it will not cause any additional pollution and with new residential development having to achieve ‘nutrient neutrality’. It offers little or no advice on how that may be achieved. 

Natural England’s guidance has effectively put a brake on new residential development across much of the country. It is estimated that the development of 150,000 new homes are now on hold. In Kent alone, the development of more than 33,000 homes are caught by the new rules, with Sussex and Hampshire similarly affected. 

It is small and mid-sized developers that seem to face the brunt of the nutrient neutrality rules – the developers who the Government say they are keen to support. 

The Government in the Autumn of last year looked to be taking action, suggesting the rules would be scrapped through amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. Those proposals were scrapped following defeat in the House of Lords.  

Michael Gove, the Housing Minister, at the Conservative Party annual conference said legislation would be brought forward in the King’s Speech in November. That too failed to materialise, with no further word from the Government. Given an imminent General Election, developers can expect little to change in what remains of this government’s term in office.  

Out of options 

So, what can developers do? Unfortunately, there is little to cheer.  

It is technically possible to mitigate nutrient neutrality through the introduction of new wetlands, adopting or retrofitting sustainable drainage or persuading farmers to leave fields fallow. All are expensive and impractical. Council schemes to mitigate phosphates have been slow to get off the ground and do not offer enough credits to clear planning application backlogs. 

The lack of guidance and government inaction has left residential developers without a clear framework or solution to a problem that they have not caused.  

What next? 

There is perhaps a glimmer of light on which developers may find comfort. Housing delivery is likely to be front and centre of the imminent General Election, rumoured for the Autumn.  

We do not yet know what the main political parties are promising – although the Labour Party has suggested it will reinstate housing targets – but it would be an astonishing omission if one of the main barriers to housing delivery was ignored or overlooked. 

In the meantime, keep an eye out for the next articles in our series: water neutrality and biodiversity net gain.  

Connect with our specialist Real Estate team today to discover the comprehensive services we can offer to land and property developers. 

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