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Government is Right to Tackle Nutrient Neutrality to Fix Weak Environmental Policies

The Government is expected to make an announcement regarding nutrient neutrality, which will give Councils discretionary neutrality powers to reflect their specific catchment issues and increase Government funding for mitigation projects.

Opinion piece by Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning policy at the House Builders Association

For those who care about pollution in our waterways and on our land, it is about time this issue was looked at because currently, we are getting worse outcomes for championed protections.

What we need is a strategy to clean up our water, not a tax which doesn’t.

Critics have said we are weakening environmental rules, but this is the wrong take, the Government are finally trying to fix weak environmental strategy. Their approach may not be perfect but it’s on the right track.

Blaming Housebuilders

The current strategy takes the easy option of shifting blame onto housebuilders, rather than ensuring farmers are supported to reduce their pollution levels and water companies are forced to deliver infrastructure investment, alongside the planning reforms which ensure projects are built more quickly.

As an example of why the current approach is broken, despite six years of bans on housing to tackle this issue, the River Lugg, which crosses the Welsh border into Herefordshire, has been downgraded from ‘recovering’ to ‘declining’.

The inequality between the pollution generated by housing and agriculture is striking.  Six houses produces as much phosphate pollution as 15 chickens. Herefordshire’s population has grown by 3,600 people over the past decade, while Powys has seen an increase of 200. In contrast, 230k people live in the Wye, alongside 23 million chickens. A special thanks to Merry Albright for these statistics, who also identified that her credit cost was £42,000 but that she was unable to get hold of those credits.

Housebuilders are not only disproportionately blamed for increased pollution but when they offer solutions, they have not been included in the mitigation strategy and have had to wait for mitigation taxes, called ‘credits’ to become available, which in many places are still not accessible.

Examples of onsite solutions could be attenuation of surface water, wetlands, water treatment or rainwater harvesting but none of these options are permitted as part of the pollution mitigation calculation and instead, credits must be bought.

Why are builders getting the blame?

In 2018, when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling on nutrient pollution first came to light, the Government should have focused on farming and water companies to ensure farmers were polluting less and water companies were able to treat sewerage more effectively. However, as they only saw the nuclear option, they were left with two choices: stopping farming or stopping housebuilding.

They obviously chose to stop housebuilding by permitting development moratoriums in sensitive areas, which stopped up to 140,000 houses from being built.

Although the housing crisis remains, taking farmland out of use was not considered a viable option, particularly when we the UK is trying to ensure greater food security and reduce carbon footprints. Yet this is becoming an option to reduce farming pollution and facilitate housebuilding. Roke Manor, a pig farm which sits on the Solent, removed its livestock to create 2,900 nutrient mitigation credits, which were sold the councils and housebuilders.

Those who bemoan the loss of the Amazon for livestock practices appear very quiet at the prospect of UK farms being removed, with the consequence of South American imports increasing.

Similarly, those who are most angry at our polluted rivers are not backing the planning reforms to ensure that water companies are more easily and quickly able to invest in solutions such as new reservoirs, new water treatment systems, and upgraded pipes. Demanding investment but not enabling it solves nothing.

Housebuilders really were the easy target, but without credits to purchase, localised calculators which took a while to agree, and some councils disagreeing with Natural England’s strategy, building moratoriums persist. It has been a very difficult five years for a sector dependent on other industries to reduce the pollution that homeowners produce.

What now?

The Government is correct to try and fix the flawed nutrient neutrality issue, which even the Netherlands is struggling to solve.  However, ‘going local’ may not solve the issue, as in many cases councils are the reason we are in this mess.

The Government is right to invest in mitigation itself, but this doesn’t stop the non-polluter tax. Therefore, the mitigation process needs reform, so that sites can go nutrient neutral without huge levies or use their own land for mitigation. If pollution levels drop considerably, the taxes and landownership models must be flexible, which means a wetland which doesn’t contribute to reducing pollution levels can return to previous use or used for something different.

Farmers need to be helped to reduce their pollution levels and this can take place by way of practice or cleanup, The NFU has been making this point for some time and it is a proven strategy.

And water companies – who have been given until 2030 – unlike housebuilders who were given notice – need to be supported to carry out their core functions by way of immediate planning reforms to enable investment and be held to account if they do not.

What we must avoid is an emotional response focusing on easy targets. If we want to reduce pollution, we need a strategy which does just that. There are no quick fixes as the last five years has emphatically confirmed.

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