New NE Nutrient Neutrality & Recreational Impact Restrictions (+ DEFRA Nature Recovery Green Paper)

Developers face some immediate additional impacts on their proposals as a result of two advice letters written by Natural England this week. Some additional guidance has been published by DLUHC and DEFRA. DEFRA has published its nature recovery green paper, setting out its options for reform of nature conservation legislation and processes, together with a summary of the findings of its HRA review working group.

Nutrient neutrality

On 16 March 2022 Natural England set out in a letter to local authorities its “advice for development proposals that have the potential to affect water quality in such a way that adverse nutrient impacts on designated habitats sites cannot be ruled out.” With appendices it runs to 25 pages. The letter isn’t online but you can see it via a LinkedIn post by James Stevens (Centre for Cities). 27 new catchment areas (covering 42 new local authorities) have been added:

I last covered nutrient neutrality issues in my 9 October 2021 blog post Development Embargos: Nitrate, Phosphate & Now Water.

This news will be unwelcome for those seeking to deliver development, and those looking to accommodating local housing needs, within the affected areas. Planning permissions will not be issued unless Natural England can be satisfied that the effects on protected habitats cannot be fully mitigated, whether by on-site or off-site solutions. There will be delays and, at best additional cost. The advice may also of course have implications for plan making in the 42 local authority areas.

Environment minister George Eustice had this to say on this issue in his 16 March 2022 written statement to the House of Commons:

Many of our most internationally important water bodies are designated as protected sites under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. Under the Habitats Regulations, competent authorities, such as local planning authorities and the Environment Agency, must assess the environmental impact of planning applications or local plans. As a result of these regulations and European case law, Natural England has advised that in areas where protected sites are in ‘unfavorable condition’ due to nutrient pollution, Local Planning Authorities can only approve a project if they are certain it will have no negative effect on the protected site.

Following further work to understand the sources of site deterioration, Natural England has today issued updated advice and support to the 32 Local Planning Authorities currently affected by nutrient pollution, as well as 42 new LPAs. So far this approach has too often been complex, time-consuming and costly to apply, and government is clear that action is needed to make sure that we both deliver the homes communities need and address pollution at source.

Firstly, to help all Local Planning Authorities affected to navigate this requirement, Natural England have published a “nutrient calculator” to enable development to take place in a sustainable way. The Government is offering £100,000 to each affected catchment to support cross-Local Authority work to meet Natural England requirements and enable development to continue.

These solutions are pragmatic short-term steps but do not amount to a permanent solution that will improve water quality and allow sustainable development to proceed, and so we are going further. The government already has highly ambitious plans to reduce nutrient pollution from both agriculture and sewerage works and has further plans for the future. We have also secured a series of pledges from water companies to provide new funding for nature-based ‘strategic solutions’ to tackle nutrient pollution. We welcome the new and proactive investment from Severn Trent Water, United Utilities, South West Water and Yorkshire Water in collectively investing an additional £24.5m in reducing nutrient pollution affecting these sites, including nature based solutions. We will work with the wider industry to deliver further action, as far as possible.”

Joanna Averley, the Government’s chief planner, has published a newsletter on the issue and written to affected local authorities. Under “What does this mean for decisions and plans” she says:

For planning applications in the affected areas, this means you need to consider the possibility of adverse effects, as a result of additional nutrient loads (including from residential developments); as part of a Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA). In practical terms, this means that before granting any new permissions following the receipt of the Natural England advice, you will need to be confident that the development in question does not require nutrient neutrality to be acceptable under the regulations or that nutrient neutrality is secured, as part of the proposal.

The nutrient neutrality methodology allows for mitigation to be secured to ensure there are no adverse effects. There may be a need to reconsult Natural England and consider requesting additional information. When undertaking an appropriate assessment, to consider mitigation and ensure there are no adverse effect as part of a HRA, there is a statutory 21-day consultation with Natural England.

I appreciate that this will have an immediate impact on planning applications and appeals in affected areas. There may be a need to reconsider the acceptability of current proposals, in light of the advice issued and you may need to consider seeking further information from applicants and reconsult as appropriate. In this situation you should follow the usual process of requesting a reasonable extension of time as necessary.

We recognise that in the newly affected areas, it is unlikely for there to be mitigation solutions in-place or readily available and so the ability for development to be made acceptable will be necessarily limited in the short term. As we have seen in catchments already affected by similar advice, it may take time for applicants to secure mitigation to be able to demonstrate neutrality.

As set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, I would encourage you to approach decisions on proposed development in a positive and creative way . This should include working with developers to identify mitigation solutions, and may be aided by the use of local validation lists to clarify the level of information that is required to adequately consider proposals in the context of nutrient neutrality. I realise that the issuing of this advice may be particularly challenging in relation to plan making. Our Local Plans team will engage with those local authorities who are facing challenges to understand what support can be provided to enable plans to continue to progress, such as the funding and PAS online workshops outlined below.

We are considering wider ramifications for this advice and are actively reviewing the relevant sections of the Planning Practice Guidance to ensure it provides the best support for decision-making and plan-making in-light of the challenges of nutrient neutrality. We also recognise that there may be implications for the Housing Delivery Test and 5 Year Housing Land Supply and will keep the situation under review.”

DEFRA has also published a policy paper: Nutrient pollution: reducing the impact on protected sites.

Recreational pressure on Chilterns Beechwoods Special Area of Conservation

We are all well aware by now of the issue of recreational pressure on protected areas which has led to, for instance, the whole SANGs (suitable alternative natural greenspace) industry – initially the pragmatic solution arrived at in relation to the Thames Basin Heaths for the purposes of the South East Regional Spatial Strategy 15 or so years ago (see the chapter SANGs: The Thames Basin Case Study, by me and Sarah Bischoff in a 2012 book edited by Greg Jones QC, The Habitats Directive: A Developer’s Obstacle Course?) but the use of which is now widespread.

Natural England wrote a letter on 16 March 2022 to Buckinghamshire Council (Aylesbury Vale and Chiltern Districts), Central Bedfordshire Council, Dacorum Borough Council, St Albans City and District Council, Hertfordshire County Council and National Trust to inform them “of emerging evidence which identifies significant recreational pressure on Chilterns Beechwoods Special Area of Conservation (SAC), more specifically Ashridge Commons and Woods Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) component. This advice applies to all Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) which were identified as partly or wholly with the 12.6km Zone of Influence (ZOI) and contribute to more than 2% of visits to the SAC. This relates to the piece of evidence instructed by Dacorum Borough Council and completed by Footprint Ecology, due to be released on 14th March 2022.

The Footprint Ecology report to inform the Habitats Regulations Assessment of Dacorum Borough Council’s Emerging Local considers that 500m represents a reasonable boundary for an inner zone around the SAC where new net increases in development will be very difficult to deliver. They will struggle to pass a HRA. It is proposed that net increases in development within the ZOI but beyond the exclusion zone will need to incorporate mitigation measures to avoid additional recreational impacts – with such measures to be delivered by a Strategic Solution.

Due to the early stage which the project is at we do not yet know what the Strategic Solution will look like and we would like to continue working with LPAs and the National Trust to develop a bespoke Strategic Solution to avoid and reduce visits to the SAC and ease recreational pressure. We have no preconceptions about precisely what the mitigation should look like (so long as it satisfies HRA requirements) and we would be happy to listen to any suggestions put on the table.”

Solutions could include, surprise surprise, Strategic Access Management and Monitoring (SAMM) (which commonly turns into a per dwelling section 106 agreement contribution), plus SANGS (although “due to the uniqueness of Chilterns Beechwoods SAC, we recognise that alternative mechanisms may also have to be considered”) and a “new gateway to the Ashridge Estate”.

In light of the emerging evidence, we recognize that there could be a serious potential conflict between the plans for new major housing provisions in the areas surrounding the Chilterns Beechwoods SAC, and the conservation objectives for the site.

Natural England understand that Strategic Solutions can be a time consuming process, and will lead to a period of time where strategic-level mitigation hasn’t yet been identified. During this period we advise that HRAs will be needed, detailing how each individual site is going to avoid adverse impacts on the integrity of the Chilterns Beechwoods SAC. This is for all planning applications that result in a net increase in dwellings, within the entire 500m – 12.6km ZOI. We are happy to work with the Local Planning Authorities and developers proactively to seek to find solutions during this temporary period.

The interim position is likely to apply until such time that a formal strategic solution is found. We will be looking for all applications to incorporate mitigation measures that will avoid additional recreational impacts.”

The letter describes the particular pressures upon the SAC created by visitor numbers at the Monument, which is the main area within the Ashridge Estate, where people park, there are walks, a café and so on. I have to declare an interest in that I live in Dacorum District and have visited Ashridge on many occasions, parking indeed at the Monument. Yes it can get busy. But to look to solve issues by clamping down on new development and/or extracting financial contributions from new development is in my view inequitable (although predictable – look at the knee jerk reaction to nitrate, phosphate and water issues!). It’s we in the existing population who need to change our habits. But as a first step, why not promote the fact that there is actually a problem, to seek to encourage people to ration their visits? It may be that this should not be your daily or weekly dog walk venue, folks! As far as I’m concerned, the National Trust positively encourages people to walk on and enjoy its land at Ashridge. It provides car parking and refreshment facilities. If that is harming the nature conservation interest of the land, shouldn’t the National Trust as responsible land owner take sufficient steps to manage numbers and dampen demand? And given that it is existing residents who are causing the damage, not future residents, why are impacts not mitigated via council tax rather than entirely loaded onto developers and future residents whose homes are now stuck in the system pending a solution?

In mid Sussex, as far as new development is concerned every additional litre of water is seen as a problem and with situations of recreational pressure every potential additional footstep from a new home – blind to the existing reality, which that any problems are being created by existing residents!

Reforming the system

I think I need to go for a calming walk (don’t worry, I’ll stick to pavements in the future, leaving special parts of the countryside for a privileged few, and perhaps if I can pledge not to visit Ashridge again I can sell that to a developer as a credit?).

So I am not going to go into any detail as to the options floated by DEFRA in its Nature recovery green paper: protected sites and species (16 March 2022) for reform of the regulatory system for protecting sites and species (part of the long-awaited post-Brexit environmental law reform package). That will be for another day.

George Eustice introduced it as follows in his written statement on 16 March 2022:

We are today launching our consultation on legally binding targets under the Environment Act to leave our environment in a better state than we found it. This includes a world leading target to halt the decline of nature by 2030. This is our compass, spurring action of the scale required to address biodiversity loss. We are also proposing targets for air quality, water, trees, marine protected areas, biodiversity, and waste reduction and resource efficiency.

This goes beyond the legal minimum required under the Act and will support the delivery of many of the government’s priorities, including to reach net zero by 2050, build resilience against the impacts of a changing climate, and level up all corners of the country.

In order to meet these targets, we must move the emphasis away from bureaucratic EU processes that haven’t done enough to moderate the pace of nature’s decline, and instead put in place the governance regime that can deliver nature’s recovery. That’s why we are publishing a green paper today, setting out proposals to create a system which better reflects the latest science, has regard for our domestic species and habitats, and delivers nature recovery.

We have always said we will take a cautious and evidence-led approach to any reform. This green paper is the next step in setting out our ideas and gathering views to inform our approach.”

By way of a taster of the green paper itself:

“… the Government is interested in consolidating the protected sites we have into a simpler legal structure to deliver better environmental outcomes which are based on the best available science and evidence.

This approach could involve having a single legal mechanism for terrestrial designation and a single legal mechanism for marine designation, but within each having the possibility of varying levels of protection which could be site or species specific.

This would enable strict protection of certain habitats or species in a single protected site, as well as more general protection for other features or habitats which might affect the integrity of the site. This would also enable a tailored approach to delivering the recovery of protected sites.”

“…the UK Government wants to fundamentally change the way the assessments under Habitats Regulations work to create clearer expectations of the required evidence base at an early stage, for example, building on the concept of a site improvement plan.

The approach should focus on the threats and pressures both on and off the site that, when addressed, will make the greatest difference to the site and help drive nature recovery whilst enabling truly sustainable development – addressing challenging issues such as nutrient neutrality and marine development.

Assessments will better identify and manage areas of scientific uncertainty. Outcomes for each site will be regularly monitored, and actions taken to address failures in assessment and mitigation. It should then also streamline the process for addressing other impacts, such as by avoiding duplication and excessive burden, whilst ensuring a consistent level of protection.

Finally, the UK Government wants to make sure that there is space for individual evidence-based judgement by an individual case officer on an individual case. The scourge of modern government has been the obsession with uniformity of procedure, which has led to a scenario where the consistency of the process to avoid litigation risk has become elevated above the quality of decision making.”

The consultation period runs until 11 May 2022

There is an HRA review working group comprising DEFRA ministers Lord Benyon and Rebecca Pow, Tony Juniper (Natural England chair) and Christopher Katkowski QC and a summary of its findings to date was published on 16 March 2022 alongside the green paper.

This week’s clubhouse event (6pm, 22 March 2022) will look to bring us up to date on the question of who should pay for the remediation of unsafe buildings, following on from the Secretary of State’s threats to developers and revisions to the Building Safety Bill that I wrote about in a blog post last month. Join here whether to listen or participate.

Simon Ricketts, 18 March 2022

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

2 thoughts on “New NE Nutrient Neutrality & Recreational Impact Restrictions (+ DEFRA Nature Recovery Green Paper)”

  1. Simon, the problem as you have identified with Ashridge is over use by the existing population but other than rationing access in a legally enforceable manner (v difficult) or public funding (also difficult) the applications have to be dealt with as they come in and as you know if the proposals increase the risk of damage then they will have to mitigate to get over certainty hurdle in the Habs Regs. What other options are there – the Green Paper doesn’t appear to suggest reducing protections as opposed to producing a simplified set of designations (though query whether that is what will happen) and it also raises the question of whether we are content to allow already degraded environmental areas to simply continue their decline. Short of a major public funding provision for habitat restoration (Ashridge and nutrient neutrality are only some of the issues) to favourable condition the proposals seem to involve largely moving the chess pieces around the board.

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