Government publishes policy paper on nutrient pollution

18 April 2023

The government has published a policy paper on its plans to support nutrient neutrality and reduce water pollution at its source. These plans include measures to:

  • Speed up the process for developers to acquire mitigation through a national nutrient mitigation scheme.
  • Reduce pollution and the cost of mitigation by introducing a new duty on water companies to upgrade wastewater treatment works through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
  • Provide clarity for developers and local planning authorities with a package of tools and guidance.
  • Restore protected sites and tackle pollution at source.

Too many local planning authorities have development sites that are in an ‘unfavourable condition’ due to excess nutrient pollution, according to Natural England. Advice issued by the body states that developments may only proceed if the resultant increase in wastewater from development does not lead to additional pollution.

To demonstrate this, developers must mitigate additional nutrient loads produced by the population growth from new homes, resulting in nutrient neutrality. This will be achieved by either onsite mitigation, or off-site in the same catchment through wetlands, or buffer zones along rivers and watercourses, for example.

Achieving nutrient neutrality through mitigation will enable local planning authorities to grant permission for new residential development, although it may potentially involve greater costs and delays on some developments.

To support with this, the government is introducing a series of measures to ease the process for developers and local planning authorities. This includes three pillars to support nutrient neutrality.

Nutrient mitigation scheme

Established by Natural England, the nutrient mitigation scheme has £30m of funding from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), and has been designed to enable developers to meet mitigation obligations and for local planning authorities to grant permission. Selling nutrient credits to housebuilders will recover this funding.

Other local and private mitigation schemes are welcomed and encouraged. The government committed to funding in the Spring Budget for high quality local mitigation schemes. A call for evidence for local planning authorities on the best way to fund these schemes is due to be published this soon.

Reducing pollution and mitigation burden on new housing

Tackling nutrient pollution at the source will reduce pressure on protected sites and reduce mitigation burdens for new housing. Funding has been, and will continue to be, targeted at improving wastewater treatment works, with the stated aim to reduce wastewater pollution by 80% by 2038. The new duty on water companies, introduced through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, will work to upgrade wastewater treatment works in particularly badly affected areas.

Providing certainty

The technical nature of the work can create uncertainty around developer investment in nutrient neutrality. There will be catchment specific nutrient calculators, which allow developers to calculate the exact amount of mitigation required.

For additional support on this, the government has also:

  • Published a tool for assisting the design of wetlands for mitigation projects.
  • Published guidance for mitigation providers on how payments from Biodiversity Net Gain and nutrient neutrality can be combined.
  • Increased Natural England’s capacity in order to provide advice on nutrient neutrality and assessment of mitigation projects.

The Planning Advisory Service will also support local planning authorities through advice and best practice. By the end of May, Natural England will be publishing a framework for assessing the effectiveness of mitigation projects with an associated reference tool. They will also produce best practice guidance, supported by new guidance from the Environment Agency on wetland permitting, and from DLUHC, on clarifying planning practice in response to feedback from developers and local planning authorities.

Who to speak to

Marie Chadwick, Policy Leader