Nutrient neutrality has been a hot topic in the development industry for the last four years, but reached a fever pitch in March 2022 after 42 new Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) were hit with constraints.
Despite it coming up in nearly every conversation we have with developers, there is still a lot of confusion and uncertainty around the subject.
We pulled together an expert panel of speakers to discuss the key challenges, considerations, and potential solutions to the nutrient neutrality issue.
Sian Griffiths, Director at RCA Regeneration, Nick Moore, Director at Link Engineering, and Neil Crofts, Managing Director at Brindle & Green joined us to share their insights and experience of advising on nutrient neutrality projects – which we’ll share below.
If you want an introduction to nutrient neutrality, we recently published a blog outlining the key information you need to know.
Before we jump into some potential ways of easing the nutrient neutrality burden on developers, let's lay out why it is such a challenge at the moment.
Why is nutrient neutrality an issue for developers?
Dangerous levels of nutrients in the watercourse is an issue that many developers want to avoid, but it's also a complicated issue with many other industries contributing to the rising phosphate and nitrate levels.
Currently, the responsibility for solving the problem is being laid at the feet of developers – with nutrient neutrality needing to be proven before planning permission can be granted. This has resulted in the delivery of 120,000 new homes being stalled.
Uncertainty and a layering up of issues (biodiversity net gains, sustainable drainage systems, and now nutrient neutrality) are causing significant delays and additional costs to developments.
Three ways to offset nutrient neutrality
First, a quick caveat – until there’s clarity on how each LPA is going to set up their mitigation schemes, it’s tricky to come up with clear-cut solutions. However, below we’ve listed a few potential routes forward that could help with offsetting nutrient loading levels.
- Make friends with farmers
Securing low-yield agricultural land in affected catchment areas could be key to preempting future mitigation schemes.
If your portfolio is big enough, looking to acquire low-yield agricultural land and planting, for example, 100 trees per hectare, could be a good way to proactively prove you are offsetting nitrate loading.
“Make friends with farmers. Make friends with as many farmers as you possibly can in the catchments you chose to build. They hold all the keys to all the solutions” – Neil
However, this may not be feasible for many developers and isn’t a long-term solution. It’s also not a quick win as it could be a lengthy process to secure the legal mechanisms to push it through.
You’d also have to demonstrate to Natural England that it’s a suitable form of mitigation – which could be particularly difficult in areas where schemes aren’t yet set up.
- Look into alternative drainage options
It’s worth reconciling yourself to the fact you may have to incorporate alternative drainage systems into your developments.
“Educate and make yourself happy with the idea of offline foul drainage systems, installing your own treatment plans and your own treatment works.” – Nick
Look into off-line foul drainage systems and see if they could be a viable choice for your project. Do this early on as you’ll have to show where you’ll be installing drainage fields, water treatment plants, and works in your site layouts.
It can help make you more self-sufficient, but it will have to be assessed on a site-by-site basis as it won’t work for every development.
You’d also need to weigh up whether you’re comfortable spending more money on on-site infrastructure, whilst also losing valuable housing space.
- Levy local government
There are a lot of LPAs who are yet to outline their nutrient neutrality mitigation schemes, which is causing the planning system to choke up.
However, it also means there’s still time for changes and suggestions to be made.
Collaboration between LPAs, property developers, and industry specialists would help ensure that any tariffs put in place would be fairly and reasonably related in scale and kind to the development proposed.
Wishful thinking? Maybe.
But getting in front of local councils who are desperately trying to come up with a solution could help ensure the schemes and assessments put in place are fair.
Many Local Plans have been further delayed as a result of nutrient neutrality, but they would be a useful vehicle for laying out an LPA-wide strategy for handling it and provide developers with a lot more clarity.
“I think Local Plans are a good way of dealing with nutrient neutrality almost once and for all for the plan period.” – Sian
It would also be beneficial to have an independent regulator oversee activity across industries and come up with a more holistic approach to tackling the nutrient issue.
What does the future hold for nutrient neutrality?
All the suggestions we mentioned above are dependent on the final mitigation schemes set out by the local authority but are useful avenues to start exploring as they could help push things through quicker once systems are in place.
Looking at LPAs who have been navigating nutrient neutrality since 2018, could provide some useful examples of projects that have been successful.
Catch up on our webinar on-demand for specific examples and case studies from our experts.
Register to watch now