What is Nutrient Neutrality and how does it affect planning?

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Since 2019, concerns over rising levels of nitrates and phosphates in rivers, estuaries and wetlands have grown. Currently in some Local Authorities, it has brought development almost to a standstill. 

Whilst such nutrients are highly valuable for land use relating to crop growth, they can be damaging in a body of water as they cause eutrophication, which affects the aquatic system ultimately causing algae blooms which in turn cause de-oxygenation of the water. 

There has been recent advice and involvement by Government and Natural England to halt this issue. 

In order to obtain planning permission for a site the development must demonstrate that it is ‘nutrient neutral’. This means all nutrients from the two principle sources (point of source such as a slurry facility, and run-off through land) must be taken into consideration for any and all future development. This means the development requires mitigation so there would be no impact by nutrients in that particular  catchment area. 

There is a misconception that this only affects residential development, however in reality this obligation will affect any new development, though primarily, residential and farming. 

Initially, the catchments affected (32) were all based in the south of England but in March 2022, Natural England issued further guidance to a further 42 authorities (including in the north) bringing the total of those affected to 74. 

Developers are requested to find land, effectively in lieu of the development, on which they can address the impact of any development. The prospect of achieving nutrient neutrality on site could be a challenge with smaller developments.

Whilst package sewage treatment plants are one solution to leaching a more popular alternative is that third-party landowners enter into Conservation Covenants and take land out of agricultural production, changing it to woodland, wetland or conservation grassland and this will help offset the effects of the development. 

Natural England advises that land used for mitigation must be maintained (ideally) for a minimum of 80-125 years to have the proper impact envisaged, which is a significant undertaking and means that many developers may wish to enter into arrangements with third party owners. There is much yet to work through with the advent of new legal arrangements but stacking of income through various schemes is currently being considered.