New housing plans are being put under threat and impractical restraints placed on developers as nutrient neutrality becomes a growing issue.

It is one of the biggest concerns in the home building industry at the moment and currently, nobody has been able to find a satisfactory solution.

Nutrient neutrality originally hit the headlines in 2018 with the infamous ‘Dutch case’, when the European Court of Justice ruled against developments in the Netherlands that were having a detrimental effect on the environment.

Advice for local planning authorities

Not surprisingly, Natural England, the Government’s adviser on the natural environment, pricked up its ears and has now rolled out guidance to a number of local planning authorities, essentially outlining what they can and cannot do when it comes to giving planning permission.

In essence, developers need to show that their activities on a site will not lead to any further nutrient pollution. We accept, as developers, that it is important we are sensitive to our surroundings and the local environments where we build. Rising nutrient pollution is a concern and definitely an issue that needs tackling. The questions are, though, how, by whom and when? And, just as importantly, what consequences will this have on land supply and the market?

The way forward

The Government, through Natural England, has offered practical support for local authorities, but there is a knowledge gap in this area and it is creating an additional burden on already overstretched local authorities.  Affected LPAs simply do not have the manpower or, in some cases, the expertise to deal with this unexpected significant increase in work.

Capital investment in waste water treatment works is a key way to address the issue, but this is not an overnight solution. Some experts are suggesting nature-based solutions, that could offer environmental and societal co-benefits. But again, these are not a quick fix. Nor is there sufficient knowledge to know what will work best.

House price rises

For house builders, on-site mitigation measures, bespoke off-site mitigation projects, or purchasing nutrient offset credits from an existing scheme will be required, something the Home Builders Federation has recently estimated will cost around £5,000 per home, potentially increasing the price of a new home as that charge is passed on to the customer. Housebuilders will have to start factoring in the cost of offsetting nutrients associated with development, which as a consequence, will mean it is less viable to build in affected areas and could limit developer contributions to affordable housing. The Government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s is already behind schedule and this extra burden is not going to help.

There has to be a simple and efficient solution, and one that reflects the fact that housing adds only a small proportion of pollution to the issue, when compared with other polluters such as agriculture.

Until then, nutrient neutrality will pose a significant obstacle to meeting housing need and tackling housing affordability.

For further guidance and information, get in touch.

Dean Williamson

Dean Williamson MRICS