The River Otter at Otterton

Nutrient neutrality: why the Governments proposals threaten water quality and wildlife

We’ve found the recent news that the Government is planning to scrap nutrient neutrality laws incredibly concerning and are standing alongside many other environmental NGOs in urging the Government not to go ahead with these plans. Now is the time to bolster laws and protections, not scrap them!


Last week, the Government announced that it is considering scrapping EU-era protections on nutrient neutrality to “boost housebuilding” and “remove red tape”. The changes are being proposed via an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which is currently going through the House of Lords, and the Government has said that this could see additional homes being built in a matter of months. The Government announced this change with no consultation process with environmental organisations and is pressing ahead without a holistic view.

What is nutrient neutrality and why is it so important?

Nutrient neutrality involves a set of legacy EU laws that originate from Brussels, designed to ensure a development plan or project doesn’t add to existing nutrient burdens within a river catchment. Nutrient neutrality schemes offset the pollution that new homes would cause, whether that’s through the creation of wetlands or buffer strips on farms to help filter the nutrient load. Nutrient pollution is the single biggest threat to the health of our rivers, streams and lakes, and these regulations are vital in providing them a level of protection.

As it is, only 14% of England’s rivers meet ‘good’ ecological status, with 100% failing to meet quality tests for pollution. Excess nutrients, like phosphates and nitrates, can cause algae growth which reduces oxygen levels and sunlight.

Chemical, wastewater and agricultural runoff have pushed our rivers and freshwater habitats to their limit, along with the wildlife that relies upon them. We cannot afford this situation to worsen.

What has the Government proposed?

Through an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, the Government is planning on scrapping these laws and expanding investment in the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme run by Natural England. This means they can give the go-ahead to build more than 100,000 new homes, which they say contribute “only a small amount of additional nutrients”.

The Government is proposing that water companies focus “at source”, driving them to concentrate their efforts on the largest nutrient inputs from sewers. This tends to be near the river mouth and will only benefit a short stretch of river.

The proposals also want to see legal protections replaced with a requirement to produce Protected Site Strategies to tackle issues such as those caused by excessive nutrients, essentially weakening the enforcement of nutrient controls. The Government promised to produce Diffuse Water Pollution plans for 37 sites “as soon as reasonably practical” but that was seven years ago and so far only six plans have been published let alone implemented.

The environmental protections aren’t actually stalling the building of housing. Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust has shown that working with developers, local government and regulators in the Solent has led to affordable nature-based solutions which mitigate the environmental impacts of new developments.

Funding into a mitigation scheme or monetary incentives can be taken away at any time, while environmental protections that are enshrined in law are less easily ignored or removed.

What could this mean for beavers?

People often (quite rightly!) point to beavers as a key helper in improving water quality by trapping sediment and trapping nutrient runoff such as phosphates and nitrates, but beavers are not a silver bullet. We need regulations like nutrient neutrality in place alongside nature-based solutions like beavers to ensure the reinstatement of healthy rivers and fresh water. The health of our rivers is not only a major cause for alarm among people, but an additional concern for us because of beavers’ semi-aquatic nature, living in or near watercourses that could now be subject to greater pollution.

In conclusion

The Government set a target in its 25-Year Environment Plan that by 2027 75% of English rivers would be rated as ‘good’, but there has been little to no movement on making this happen and we urgently need legislation that improves the short term for the benefit of all in the long term.

We shouldn’t have to choose between new homes and clean water. Development shouldn’t come at the cost of our rivers.

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