‘Nutrient credits’: Government launches latest water pollution crackdown

Just days after the Environment Agency released a damning assessment of the water industry’s continuing failure to tackle sewage overflows and other serious pollution incidents, the government yesterday launched its latest package of measures to tackle water pollution across England.

The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) unveiled a series of plans designed to tackle nutrient pollution, minimise the impact of new housing developments on water courses, and better protect nature habitats.

Alongside the sewage overflow scandal that has led to a wave of serious pollution incidents across the UK, waterways have been afflicted by increasing levels of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater plants and agricultural run-off. These nutrients can speed up the growth of certain plants and have devastating impacts on natural habitats.

The problem is also proving a barrier to new housing developments given EU-derived domestic legislation and case law means Local Planning Authorities can only approve a plan or a project if they are certain it will have no negative effect on legally protected sites for nature.

Natural England, in its statutory role as an adviser on the natural environment, has advised a total of 74 Local Planning Authorities on the nutrient impacts of new plans and projects on protected sites where those protected sites are in unfavourable condition due to excess nutrients.

As such, the government has today announced plans to try and tackle nutrient pollution hotspots, so as to both minimise the impact on natural habitats and allow for sustainable development projects.

“The plans we have announced today will protect England’s habitat and precious habitats from the impacts of nutrient pollution, whilst ensuring communities receive the new homes they need,” said Environment Secretary George Eustice. “This is just one part of ongoing Government action to improve water quality across the country, from targets in our world-leading Environment Act to action on storm overflows.”

Specifically, the plans announced today would place a new legal duty on water companies in England to upgrade wastewater treatment works by 2030 in ‘nutrient neutrality’ areas to the highest achievable technological levels.

The legal requirement will be introduced via a government amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. The government said that where possible it would work with water companies to identify where upgrades could be accelerated and delivered sooner.

In addition, a new Nutrient Mitigation Scheme established by Natural England and backed by government funding it to be introduced to explore how to soak up an unavoidable nutrient through measures such as new and expanded pollution wetlands and woodlands that can also improve public access to nature.

The government said it hoped the program would “allow local planning authorities to grant planning permission for new developments in areas with nutrient pollution issues, providing for the development of sustainable new homes and ensuring building can go ahead”.

The program is also set to be supported through a system of ‘nutrient credits’ whereby developers will be required to purchase credits demonstrating that work has been undertaken to minimise nutrient pollution.

Defra explained that Natural England would accredit mitigation delivered through the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme, local planning authorities to planning permission for developments which have granted the necessary nutrient credits. “This will ensure developers have a streamlined way to mitigate nutrient pollution, allowing planned building to continue and creating new habitats across the country,” the government said.

“It is essential that new homes do not impair the quality of our rivers, streams and wetlands,” said Levelling Up Secretary Greg Clark. “These measures will ensure the development can take place, but only where there is practical action taken to protect our precious aquatic habitats.”

However, as with similar biodiversity offset projects, the scheme is likely to prove controversial with some environmental campaigners who fear the system could allow major new projects to be approved that would still have significant environmental impacts, on the understanding nutrient pollution may be successfully addressed in the future.

But Tony Juniper, chair at Natural England, said the new package of measures represented “significant steps forward” in the push to improve water quality across the UK.

“Wetlands and estuaries are home to a wide variety of internationally-important wildlife species, from wading birds to insects and from fish to special plants,” he said. “Pollution from excess nutrients is causing serious damage to many of these fragile places and if we are to meet our national targets for Nature recovery it is vital that we take concerted, coordinated action to protect them.

“The duty on water companies and the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme mark significant steps forward, and will help join up the various approaches to improving water quality and bring about multiple other benefits. They will provide the tools needed to help planning authorities, developers and water and land managers to both build new homes and support the healthy rivers and lakes that are vital for restoring nature and creating beautiful places for everyone to enjoy.”

The government said the new measures represented the latest step in its wide-ranging plans to improve water quality to meet new binding targets introduced through the recent Environment Act, which include new funding to the Environment Agency to increase farm inspections to at least 4,000 inspections a year by 2023 and new farming schemes that will reward farmers and land managers for environmental actions, such as introducing cover crops and buffering rivers, to reduce run-off.

However, the moves come as the government continues to face fierce criticism over its response to the wave of sewage pollution incidents that have afflicted the UK in recent years. Last week the Environment Agency published a damning report detailing how many of the UK’s water companies had made scant progress in tackling sewage overspills, calling on the courts to impose much higher fines and consider custodial sentences for executives responsible for illegal levels of pollution.

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