Plans to amend water pollution restrictions for housing developments, which remain in place from the UK's time in the EU, have been announced by the Government.
Current guidance from Natural England, informed by the Habitats Directive from EU law, requires new residential developments in affected protected areas to show that they will be “nutrient neutral” before planning permission can be granted. The Government seeks to loosen this requirement by providing that local authorities must assume that nutrients in urban waste water from the proposed development will not adversely affect a protected site, via an amendment or change to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which is making its way through the House of Lords.
This marks another step in a new direction for nutrient neutrality regulation. In July 2022, plans were announced for additional legal requirements to be imposed to help reduce the level of nutrients at source, under the remit of the Environment Act 2021. This was swiftly followed by a commitment to review the assessment processes contained in the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, with the aim of making those processes more user-friendly.
Whilst housebuilders have generally welcomed these developments, which they estimated would unblock the development of circa 145,000 homes largely in the South East of England, the Chair of the Office for Environmental Protection has written to the Government, warning that the amendments risk “substantial harm to protected wildlife sites”. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has responded that she stands by her pledge that the Government will not weaken its commitment to the environment.
Whether the proposed Government amendments are approved remains to be seen, including whether Natural England will amend its current guidance.
Still it seems, the waters remain muddy. The tension between the urgent need to build more housing and the urgent need to protect the environment remains finely balanced.