Ahead of a late but welcome announcement by the Government, there was a silly headline in The Times this week: Homes crisis ‘worsened by environmental red tape’ (18 July 2022). Yes, we are back to the topic of my 16 July 2022 blog post: nutrient/water neutrality.
It’s good that this huge issue is attracting media attention – and I’ll come on to the Government announcement in a moment – but it is disappointing to see the usual “red tape” sneer.
The problem isn’t the rules or bureaucracy: we have specific areas designated of particular ecological importance and sensitivity, the integrity of some of which is under threat because of the existing levels of nutrients draining into them, from farming (eg fertilisers, animal waste) and from homes (human waste), and the integrity of others which is under threat due to the consequences of over-abstraction of water. These situations haven’t been adequately dealt with by the water companies or government agencies, meaning that even one more home being built in these catchment areas is considered by Natural England to be unacceptable without adequate mitigation in place (which can be difficult, particularly for smaller schemes). The problem isn’t the housebuilding, it’s the pre-existing precarious state of these areas.
It is a big problem, and it has been with us for a long time now (see my previous blog posts).
The Government has been waking up to the issue. Back in March 2022, DEFRA announced some support for affected local planning authorities, Nutrient pollution: reducing the impact on protected sites (16 March 2022). But this was little comfort to those stuck in the system.
But this week we saw more wide ranging measures announced by DEFRA and DLUHC. Of course they won’t provide an immediate solution, but they are certainly welcome.
The package of announcements comprises
- Environment Secretary of State George Eustice’s written ministerial statement (20 July 2022)
- DEFRA and DLUHC press statement Government sets out plan to reduce water pollution (20 July 2022)
- the Government’s chief planner Joanna Averley’s letter to chief planning officers (21 July 2022)
These are the main measures announced by the Secretary of State:
- “In order to drive down pollution from all development in the relevant catchments, we will be tabling an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. This will place a new statutory duty on water and sewerage companies in England to upgrade wastewater treatment works to the highest technically achievable limits by 2030 in nutrient neutrality areas. Water companies will be required to undertake these upgrades in a way that tackles the dominant nutrient(s) causing pollution at a protected site. We are also using feedback from the recent ‘call for evidence’ to water companies to identify where these upgrades could be accelerated and delivered sooner.”
- Natural England is directed to establish a nutrient mitigation scheme. “Defra and DLUHC will provide funding to pump prime the scheme: this is intended to frontload investment in mitigation projects, including wetland and woodland creation. This will then be recouped through a simple payment mechanism where developers can purchase ‘nutrient credits’ which will discharge the requirements to provide mitigation. Natural England will accredit mitigation delivered through the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme, enabling LPAs to grant planning permission for developments which have secured the necessary nutrient credits…We will announce further details in the autumn when the scheme will launch, and in the meantime, Natural England will be in touch with local authorities and developers.”
- “Longer term, we continue to progress proposals to reform the Habitats Regulations so that impacts on protected sites are tackled up front, focusing on what is best for bringing sites back into favourable status.”
- “We will make clear in planning guidance that judgements on deliverability of sites should take account of strategic mitigation schemes and the accelerated timescale for the Natural England’s mitigation schemes and immediate benefits on mitigation burdens once legislation requiring water treatment upgrades comes into force. DLUHC will revise planning guidance over the summer to reflect that sites affected by nutrient pollution forming part of housing land supply calculations are capable of being considered deliverable for the purposes of housing land supply calculations, subject to relevant evidence to demonstrate deliverability. It will be for decision takers to make judgements about impacts on delivery timescales for individual schemes in line with the National Planning Policy Framework.”
Joanna Averley’s letter goes into more detail as to how the proposed new statutory duty on water companies will help:
“The majority of nutrient pollution from residential properties enters waterbodies via treated discharges from wastewater treatment works (WWTW). The performance of WWTW varies based on the limits in environmental permits issued by the Environment Agency, which in turn reflect the environmental requirements of the waterbodies to which the effluent is discharged. The performance of WWTW is therefore the central factor in the level of nutrient pollution associated with existing homes and new development. It is therefore logical that effort on reducing nutrient pollution associated with housing focusses on upgrading WWTW. The statutory obligation for upgrading WWTW, which will be introduced into the LURB, will ensure that WWTW in nutrient neutrality catchments are operating at the highest level of performance, rectifying nutrient pollution at source. This will reduce the pollution from not only new development coming forward, but also from the majority of existing dwellings in affected catchments, representing a significant decrease in overall pollution from housing.
The specific performance levels of the connected WWTW is a major variable when determining the amount of mitigation new development has to secure to achieve nutrient neutrality. Suitable mitigation measures might include constructed wetlands or land use change, which can be land intensive. Under Natural England’s Nutrient Neutrality methodology, the permit limit is used, or where there is no permit limit on nutrient discharges from WWTW, a standard precautionary figure is used (8mg/l for phosphates (P) and 27mg/l for nitrates (N)). The statutory obligation from 2030 will require WWTW to operate at the technically achievable limit (TAL); for phosphates this is 0.25mg/l and nitrates 10mg/l. This action will ameliorate nutrient pollution and significantly reduce the mitigation burden for developments.
The habitat regulations require that mitigation be secured for the lifetime of the development which Natural England consider to be 80-120 years. The obligated upgrades to WWTW required from 2030; will provide clarity from the point of the LURB measures coming into force. For developments this means that the current high level of mitigation will only be required up to the end of 2030. After 2030, the pollution levels via WWTW will be much reduced and so a lower level of mitigation will be required. This reduces the overall mitigation burden on housing developments coming forward in nutrient neutrality catchments.”
This should be welcomed (even if it is so belated and does raise questions as to whether water companies will actually be able to deliver – and at whose cost) but of course there is still the period to 2030 before these new permit limits apply and so it is important that the promised nutrient mitigation scheme is up and running as soon as possible. Housing Today have raised significant concerns on that score in their piece, Government’s nutrient mitigation scheme ‘years away’ (22 July 2022)
Finally, the ministerial statement sets out unambiguously the Government’s position as to whether the Regulations bite on reserved matters applications and applications to discharge pre-commencement conditions: “The Habitats Regulations Assessment provisions apply to any consent, permission, or other authorisation, this may include post-permission approvals; reserved matters or discharges of conditions.” Joanna Averley’s letter promises further planning practice guidance on this issue.
In the meantime, there is no Planning Law Unplanned clubhouse event this week but I am speaking at a clubhouse event arranged by Iain Thomson of Bellona Advisors for 6pm on Monday 25 July 2022 on the subject of Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges, alongside writer Gareth Dennis and Intermodality’s Nick Gallop – join here. And for a taster of what we may cover, here’s Iain’s recent SRFIs blog post.
Simon Ricketts, 23 July 2022
Personal views, et cetera