Govt’s pitch to neutralise nutrient neutrality rules met with mixed reaction
Secretary of state Michael Gove announced yesterday the government’s intention to remove a requirement for developers to prove proposed housing projects will not increase the amount of nitrogen or phosphorus in rivers.
The planning policy, a legacy from the UK’s time in the EU, has impacted the delivery of more than 100,000 homes, according to the government. It has led to the slowing down of construction in 62 local authorities.
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While the relaxation of planning policy rules around river pollution was welcomed by many, others remained concerned that not enough is being done to help the country’s waterways.
More work required
John Charlesworth, senior infrastructure engineer at Hydrock, was one of those urging caution.
“We can’t be blinded by profit and our economy if we want to find the right balance in terms of protecting rivers and our environment,” he said.
“As an engineering, energy and sustainability consultancy, it would be disheartening to see our planning system step away from putting our planet first,” he continued.
Stephen O’Malley, chief executive of Civic Engineers, was of a similar mind.
“It is well documented and publicised that our water courses are heavily polluted and under significant ecological pressure,” O’Malley said. “Whilst recognising that today’s announcement relaxing the rules on nutrient neutrality will enable some development to move forward, it is not going to help the situation with our rivers.”
O’Malley and Charlesworth welcomed the second part of Gove’s announcement. Alongside the loosening of nutrient neutrality rules in planning, the secretary of state committed an additional £140m towards Natural England’s Nutrient Mitigation Scheme. Gove also reiterated the government’s commitment to promoting sustainable drainage systems in developments and requiring water companies to invest in their infrastructure.
“For all the criticism likely to be aimed at Michael Gove following the announcement, the government alone can’t provide the kind of financial commitment needed to completely mitigate nutrient neutrality,” Charlesworth said.
“Water companies, local authorities, developers and consultants all have a responsibility to set the highest standards and do the right thing on the road to delivering better schemes and associated infrastructure, such as embedding sustainable urban drainage systems where needed.”
The SME perspective
Gove’s announcement was “undoubtedly very welcomed news” for Stephen Barker, chairman of developer Peterloo Estates.
“It is undeniable that housing delivery has suffered a compound effect of year-on-year underperformance as a direct result of our slow and prohibitively expensive planning system,” he continued. “Planning is now seen as the biggest hindrance to growth across all SME developers I have spoken to in recent years.”
Barker knows first-hand the impact nutrient neutrality rules can have on a project. Peterloo Estates is working with Currock Avenue and JP5 Developments to deliver 92 family homes near Carlisle.
The project, which sits on a brownfield site, was in the middle of the planning approval process when Cumbrian councils were alerted by Natural England that development in the River Eden Special Area of Conservation would fall under nutrient neutrality rules. This occurred in the spring of last year and led to the effective freezing of the delivery of around 2,500 homes in Cumbria alone.
Peterloo’s 92 houses were among those in the catchment that were impacted, despite the project having already gotten the all-clear from Natural England.
The sudden implementation of the rules “really threw those affected local authorities under the bus”, according to Barker.
“Already short-staffed, with no spare budget, they were given a major problem but no guidance or support on how to overcome it,” he continued.
Carlisle City Council’s planning committee voted to approve the scheme in May, dependent on a Section 106 agreement and a compliant nutrient neutrality policy.
But crafting a nutrient neutrality solution has been tricky. Legislation requires Peterloo to connect its housing project to a public sewer unless an exemption can be secured. That is unlikely in this project’s case, Barker said, because a main sewer crosses the site and a standalone solution is not physically possible on the site.
Once a connection to a sewer has been made, the developer no longer has control over how the wastewater is treated or if the water company’s infrastructure is adequate.
That means Barker’s plans are in limbo – beholden to the actions of the water company.
“It is important to stress that the ecology of our rivers and streams, and wider ecology generally, is absolutely a priority for us, as it is for all responsible developers,” Barker said. “However, this has to be proportionate and considered in the context of our obligations under the Building Act 1984 and the Water Act 1991…
“We are, however, proposing permeable paving to driveways to ensure all surface water is sufficiently treated prior to reaching any watercourse (or combined sewer) in accordance with the SUDs hierarchy,” he continued.
With no options available for action that he can see, Barker and his team have had to sit and wait.
“We have been unbelievably fortunate to have had a supportive and long-term funding partner on this project who has stuck with us throughout,” he said. “If this project had been funded by a commercial bank, they would almost certainly have pulled the plug and called in any loan because, on paper, there would be no prospect of exiting the project within any quantifiable timeframe.”
Delays like those presented by nutrient neutrality rules have more impacts than just exacerbating the housing crisis, according to Barker.
“The knock-on effect of this inactivity has meant a delay to improved urban green open space locally; delivery of energy efficient homes bringing occupational costs down for residents; a proposed housing mix which is currently limited or simply not available in that part of Carlisle; a loss of additional council tax revenue for the local authority; and all the local job creation as a result of the construction phase of the project which could have been well underway by now,” he said.