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Government is Right to Tackle Nutrient Neutrality to Fix Weak Environment Policies

Opinion Piece by Rico Wojtulewicz

The Government is expected to make an announcement regarding nutrient neutrality, which will give Councils discretionary neutrality powers to reflect their specific catchment issues and increase Government funding for mitigation projects.

For those who care about pollution in our waterways and on our land, it is about time this issue was looked at because currently, we are getting worse outcomes for championed protections.

What we need is a strategy to clean up our water, not a tax which doesn’t.

Critics have said we are weakening environmental rules, but this is the wrong take, the Government are finally trying to fix weak environmental strategy. Their approach may not be perfect but it’s on the right track.

Blaming Housebuilders

The current strategy takes the easy option of shifting blame onto housebuilders, rather than ensuring farmers are supported to reduce their pollution levels and water companies are forced to deliver infrastructure investment, alongside the planning reforms which ensure projects are built more quickly.

As an example of why the current approach is broken, despite six years of bans on housing to tackle this issue, the River Lugg, which crosses the Welsh border into Herefordshire, has been downgraded from ‘recovering’ to ‘declining’.

The inequality between the pollution generated but housing and agriculture is striking. Six houses produces as much phosphate as 15 chickens. Herefordshire’s population has grown by 3,600 people over the past decade, while Powys has seen an increase of 200. In contrast, 230k people live in the Wye, alongside 23 million chickens. A special thanks to Merry Albright for these statistics, who also identified that her credit cost was £42,000 but that she was unable to get hold of these credits.

Housebuilders are not only disproportionately blamed for increased pollution, but when they offer solutions they have not been included in the mitigation strategy and have had to wait for mitigation taxes, called ‘credits’ to become available, which in many places are still not accessible.

Examples of onsite solutions could be attenuation of surface water, wetlands, water treatment or rainwater harvesting, but none of these options are permitted as part of pollution mitigation calculation and instead, credits must be brought.

Why are builders getting the blame?

In 2018, when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling on nutrient pollution first came to light, the Government should have focused on farming and water companies to ensure farmers were polluting less and water companies were able to treat sewerage more effectively. However, as they only saw the nuclear option, they were left with two choice: stopping farming or stopping housebuilding.

They obviously chose to stop housebuilding by permitting development moratoriums in sensitive areas, which stopped up to 140,000 houses from being built.

Although the housing crisis remains, taking farmland out of use was not considered a viable option, particularly when the UK is trying to ensure greater food security and reduce carbon footprints. Yet this is becoming an option to reduce farming pollution and facilitate housebuilding. Roke Manor, a pig farm situated on the Solent, removed its livestock to create 2,900 nutrient mitigation credits, which were sold to councils and housebuilders.

Those who bemoan the loss of the Amazon for livestock practices appear very quiet at the prospect of UK farms being removed, with the consequence of South American imports increasing.

Similarly, those who are most angry at our polluted rovers are not backing the planning reforms to ensure water companies are more easily and quickly able to invest in solutions such as new reservoirs, new water treatment systems, and upgraded pipes. Demanding investment but not enabling it solves nothing.

Housebuilders really were the easy target, but without credits to purchase, localised calculators which took a while to agree, and some councils disagreeing with Natural England’s strategy, building moratoriums persist. It has been a very difficult five years for a sector dependent on other industries to reduce the pollution that homeowners produce.

What now?

The Government is correct to try and fix the flawed nutrient neutrality issue, which even the Netherlands is struggling to solve. However, ‘going local’ may not solve the issue, as in many cases councils are the reason we are in this miss.

The Government is right to invest in mitigation itself, but this doesn’t stop the non-polluter tax. Therefore, the mitigation process needs reform, so that sited can go nutrient neutral without huge levies or use their own land for mitigation. If pollution levels drop considerably, the taxes and landownership models must be flexible, which means a wetland which doesn’t contribute to reducing pollution levels can return to previous use or be used for something different.

Farmers need to be helped to reduced their pollution levels and this can take place by way of practice or clean up. The NFU has been making this point for some time an it is a proven strategy.

And water companies – who have been given until 2030 – unlike housebuilders who were given notice – need to be supported to carry out their core functions by way of immediate planning reforms to enable investment and be held account if they do not.

What we must avoid is an emotional response focusing on easy targets. If we want to reduce pollution, we need a strategy which does just that. There are no quick fixes as the last five years has emphatically confirmed.

“The Government has been getting the nutrient neutrality strategy wrong for five years and therefore it is correct that they reassess their approach. Despite housebuilding not being the major polluter and implementing many strategies, have been bending over backwards to reduce pollution. We hope this is the start of a process which fixes the pollution issue and doesn’t disproportionately blame and tax the housebuilding industry.”

Richard Beresford, Chief Executive of the National Federation of Builders (NFB)

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