Plans to relax nutrient neutrality laws have now been blocked by the House of Lords.
The government planned to remove these restrictions in an effort to boost homebuilding. Nutrient neutrality laws had been heavily criticised by developers as preventing the building of 145,000 homes in 74 local authorities, according to the Home Builders Federation (HBF).
Thousands of self build projects were estimated to be stuck in planning limbo due to pollution in rivers, leading to planning delays and obstacles with the HBF warning of significant consequences if the issue of nutrient neutrality was not addressed. The body estimated as many as 120,000 new homes a year, half of all planned new home construction, were being halted due to nutrient neutrality.
However, the planned changes to nutrient neutrality laws have now been defeated in the House of Lords. We explain how these changes could affect your project.
What is nutrient neutrality?
Nutrient neutrality is the demonstration of zero additional nutrient contribution to rivers, estuaries and wetlands - in other words showing that a proposed development won't add to the current nutrient load, or may even reduce it.
Excess nutrients typically come from agriculture and sewage treatment works, and while they can come from private treatment plants, a January 2022 report from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) did not identify homebuilding as a major contributor.
If these nutrient levels are too high, then an area might be deemed by Natural England to be unsuitable for development because excess nutrients can cause seasonal algae bloom, which restricts the growth, distribution and variety of food and oxygen for the complex network of river ecology.
This is especially pertinent in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), which are protected by European Habitats Directives and specific planning conditions requirements will be needed to be met in order to gain planning permission.
How serious is nutrient neutrality?
Growing fears over river pollution in the UK led the EAC to warn in January, 2022, that a “chemical cocktail of sewage, agricultural waste and plastic” was impacting our rivers.
Natural England first advised some councils with failing SACs in 2019 to prevent housing schemes which were not able to demonstrate nutrient neutrality. Since then housebuilding in some catchment regions has been on hold due to high nutrients in the soil and water.
And in March, 2022, Natural England advised another 42 local authorities that development in some catchments cannot go ahead unless they are nutrient neutral – meaning an estimated 145,000 homes are now being delayed across 74 local authorities because of the issue, according to the Home Builders Federation (HBF).
Why was it defeated?
The government plans to discard these regulations by means of an amendment within the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, currently in the process of review in the House of Lords.
The nutrient neutrality vote in the Labour-dominated House of Lords was defeated by 203 votes to 156, a majority of 47.
The changes to nutrient neutrality laws now cannot be passed through the Levelling Up Bill, delaying, or even potentially ending any chance of their removal.
Angela Rayner spearheaded the opposition to this plan in her role as the shadow levelling up secretary.
Rayner remarked on the defeat, stating: "The Tories have utterly failed in their attempt to score cheap political points with a flawed plan."
"We are prepared to collaborate with the government, housebuilders, and environmental groups to reach a viable solution for constructing the necessary homes."
Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, countered by accusing Labour of instructing their peers to obstruct "the dream of homeownership for thousands of families... despite boasting that Labour would be the party of the builders not the blockers."
Reforms planned to 'unlock housing delivery across the country'
The planned relaxation of nutrient neutrality laws was welcomed by industry experts as developers had to demonstrate how they would prevent or counteract pollution as a condition to obtain permission for construction.
This requirement impeded the construction of new homes in specific regions, according to both developers and the government.
Stewart Baseley, executive chair of the HBF, said: “Today’s very welcome announcement has the potential to unlock housing delivery across the country, from Cornwall to the Tees Valley, where housebuilding has been blocked despite wide acknowledgement that occupants of new homes are responsible for only a tiny fraction of the wastewater finding its ways into rivers and streams.
"New homes are a negligible contribution to the river pollution issue that is a result of agricultural practices and water company failings."
He added homebuilders are "keen to play a part in protecting rivers", but the current rules are not solving the issue, rather "exacerbating another national crisis, our shortage of homes".
The planned changes would have meant Natural England would handle the mitigation of the "very small amount" of pollution caused by new homes.
To do so, the government claimed it would double the existing investment in Natural England to £280m by 2030.
Michael Gove previously said: “Protecting the environment is paramount, which is why the measures we’re announcing today will allow us to go further to protect and restore our precious waterways, while still building the much-needed homes this country needs. We will work closely with environmental agencies and councils as we deliver these changes.”
How would this have benefitted self builders?
The relaxation of nutrient neutrality laws aimed to simplify the homebuilding process and remove barriers when gaining planning for self builders and developers.
Concerns over nutrient neutrality has left self builders “virtually powerless” when it comes to building their home, according to Merry Albright, creative director of Border Oak and co-chair of the Herefordshire Construction Industry Lobby Group (HCILG).
She claims self builders who already had planning permission to build on their plots haven't been able to break ground in areas where housing development has been shut down.
“For those who’ve already bought their plots, they’re stuck - especially if the planning permission has run out, and it’s not a given that they’re going to get planning permission again," said Albright.
Self building in Herefordshire has been restricted for more than three years, and even some schemes with planning permission have been impacted because drainage proposals or changes to an approved scheme must show nutrient neutrality using a very tough set of criteria - or by applying a complex set of calculations and offering mitigation or betterment (which is very hard to do on small schemes).
The HCILG estimated that around half of the frozen applications are potential self and custom build plots.
Elsewhere, nutrient pollution in the River Solent has led to Somerset (which has around 11,000 homes delayed in a backlog), Hampshire (around 16,000) and Kent all since being placed under planning restrictions.
The recent Housing Pipeline report also highlighted the continued decline in the approval of planning permissions as in Q1 2023 the number of housing projects granted planning permission reached a historically low quarterly figure of 3,037. This reflects a 20% decrease compared to the previous year and an 11% drop from the final quarter of 2022.
Notably, the number of approved projects in 2022 was already at its lowest level since the dataset's inception in 2006.
These planning reforms to nutrient neutrality laws, it was hoped, would cause a rise in those gaining permissions and allow self builders to get to work on their projects more easily and faster.
Nutrient neutrality calculators still available
Although this government change has been blocked, a previous effort to mitigate nutrient neutrality obstacles in nutrient neutrality calculators is still available.
The government has developed catchment-specific nutrient calculators to help homebuilders calculate the precise amount of mitigation required to meet planning conditions before they decide to build their own home.
This helps self builders make informed decisions about their construction projects and ensures that they comply with environmental regulations.
Additionally, the government has increased the capacity of Natural England to provide advice and support on assessing mitigation project suitability. This support helps developers to ensure that their projects are environmentally sustainable and comply with regulations.
By hiring dedicated nutrients advisors for local planning authorities, the government is helping to share best practices and provide advice to local authorities and developers to make sure they are informed about the most effective methods of mitigating the impact of construction on local ecosystems.
You can read the government nutrient planning document on the gov.uk website.
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News Editor Joseph has previously written for Today’s Media and Chambers & Partners, focusing on news for conveyancers and industry professionals. Joseph has just started his own self build project, building his own home on his family’s farm with planning permission for a timber frame, three-bedroom house in a one-acre field. The foundation work has already begun and he hopes to have the home built in the next year. Prior to this he renovated his family's home as well as doing several DIY projects, including installing a shower, building sheds, and livestock fences and shelters for the farm’s animals. Outside of homebuilding, Joseph loves rugby and has written for Rugby World, the world’s largest rugby magazine.
- Jack WoodfieldNews Editor