Nutrient neutral - Working together to avoid planning delays

Published: 25th March 2022
Area: Site Appraisals

A further 27 catchments across 42 local authorities now find themselves subject to nutrient neutrality requirements following a recent announcement from Natural England. Kevin Exley, a principal planner at Marrons Planning takes a look at what this means for councils and developers.

What are nutrient neutrality requirements?

The requirements mean that all developments in the affected catchment areas will have to demonstrate 'nutrient neutrality', meaning that the nutrients from all surface water runoff and wastewater generated by a development must be less than or equal to the nutrients generated by the existing land use.

While this is an expansion of the catchment areas and councils affected, this is not a recent issue. In 2010 many may recall that North West Leicestershire District Council were unable to determine many applications due to potential water quality impacts on the River Mease SAC.

Fast forward to the present day and this is an increasingly important issue being played out across many sensitive catchments in the England, including the 27 additional areas affecting 42 councils, announced earlier this month (March 2022).  This is, without doubt, a daunting issue for many council’s faced with this additional administrative burden of trying to protect some of our most sensitive rivers and environments.

For developers it could lead to greater uncertainty, especially in the short-term as regulatory bodies and councils seek to deal with the additional burdens and complexities (and there are many!) that will inevitably follow the Governments announcements.  It could mean finding mechanisms to ensure that additional foul water flows from your development do not lead to increased levels of nutrients in sensitive watercourses, but it will also clarify the need for council’s to prepare a Habitat Regulations Assessments for development within the catchment area of designated site (and for developers to provide technical support for more complex schemes) and could also increase the need for additional treatment trains within sustainable drainage schemes. 

How can these requirements be met?

Natural England is proposing to issue a National Generic Methodology (and the associated catchment calculators) to provide Local Planning Authorities with the tools to progress nutrient neutrality as a potential mitigation solution to enable development that would otherwise adversely affect the integrity of habitats sites to proceed. However the real challenge will be delivering the additional mitigation necessary to ensure no net increase in nutrients when a new development will generate higher levels of nutrient than the historic land use.

The River Mease Partnership is a great example of what can be achieved through meaningful collaboration. Ten years and two developer contribution schemes later, a partnership of local councils, the water company, the Environment Agency and Natural England, supported by some excellent work by the Trent Rivers Trust has, by and large, managed to find a way to mitigate the effects of new development and reduce nutrient levels in the River Mease SAC.  And whilst phosphate levels are falling, though remain too high, specific measures are being delivered by the partnership to ensure new development is, in effect nutrient neutral.  These measures are relatively low cost nature based solutions which are good news for developers and good news for the environment.

At first glance the changes being proposed by the government are daunting and it will inevitably have some short-term impacts on the development industry. It will take councils and other statutory agencies some time to work through the consequences of this announcement, though as demonstrated by the authorities in the Mease Catchment, nutrient neutrality doesn’t have to be a significant barrier to growth so long as councils, environmental bodies and developers take a positive and creative approach to protecting some of our most sensitive sites.

How can we help?

Marrons Planning has recently appointed Kevin Exley, who represented South Derbyshire District Council on both the River Mease Programme Board and River Mease Technical Working Group.  He has worked with a range of agencies to ensure development could continue to come forward despite the need to protect the Mease SAC.  During his time at South Derbyshire District Council he was largely responsible for ensuring that development schemes would not adversely affect the integrity of the SAC. As a result Kevin has gained an extensive understanding of the Habitat Regulations, nutrient neutrality and the issues facing small and large scale developments within the catchment of sensitive sites affected by nutrients. 

Get In Contact

If you have a site affected by nutrient neutrality issues contact Kevin Exley