Michael Gove said brownfield presumption will tackle under-delivery. Credit: Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities, via CC BY 3.0, bit.ly/43GCfAZ. Image has been cropped.

Govt hoping to scrap nutrient neutrality requirement

A pipeline of more than 100,000 homes could soon be able to flow if rules are relaxed, according to the government.

The government has this week proposed an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that will remove the requirement for housing projects in protected areas to be ‘nutrient neutral’ – in other words, the development cannot increase the amount of nitrogen or phosphorous in rivers.

In the region, this is a pressing issue in Teesside in particular, following statutory advice issued in 2022 by Natural England – with levels of nitrogen in the Tees rated as excessive, it was ruled all developments should be able to demonstrate nutrient neutrality.

As of June this year, Middlesbrough had been unable to determine planning applications for 1,452 homes, 285 student bedrooms, a four-bedroom HMO and a 48-bed hotel.

Secretary of State Michael Gove 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 whilst still building the much-needed homes this country needs.

“We will work closely with environmental agencies and councils as we deliver these changes.”

While the government acknowledged the problem of nutrients in rivers as a problem, it said that the contribution of housebuilding was “very small”, blaming “legacy EU laws” for the deadlock.

What is now proposed is significantly expanding investment in and evolving the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme run by Natural England, doubling investment to £280m.

Natural England will work with local authorities, the private sector and others to tackle nutrient pollution and work towards the long term health and resilience of the river systems, the government said.

The government said that it intends to work with the housing industry to ensure that larger developers make an appropriate and fair contribution to this scheme over the coming years, and is discussing the right structure and approach with the Home Builders Federation.

The government will then accelerate work on full site restoration through further work on new Protected Site Strategies, which Natural England will draw up in partnership with local communities to set protected sites on the path to recovery in the most affected catchments with the highest housing demand.

A Middlesbrough Council spokesman said: “We welcome any measures that will enable us to bring forward much needed new housing.

“However this can only happen with due regard to maintaining and improving the quality of the River Tees, and improving the integrity of the Teesmouth and Cleveland Coast Special Protection Area.”

Water companies are the largest source of phosphorous pollution, according to the government – which also states that agricultural practices are to blame for the pollution status of 40% of the country’s waters. The Home Builders Federation has argued that the built environment contributes less than 5% of pollution to rivers.

Natural England will also increase the inspections it conducts on farms, support farmers in employing innovations to avoid nutrient runoffs, and double down on requirements for sustainable drainage solutions in housing developments.

Home Builders Federation executive chairman Stewart Baseley said that the 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”.

He continued: “The industry is eager to play its part in delivering mitigation and protecting our waterways. We look forward to engaging with government on the right way to do so, now that ministers are acting upon the arguments that builders both large and small have been making for so long.”

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