Nutrient Neutrality Policy Update in the Wake of Levelling Up Bill Amendments

The issue of nutrient neutrality and its impacts on housing delivery have been at the forefront of planning policy discussions in recent months.  Nutrient neutrality refers to the principle that any increase in nitrogen or phosphate entering the water environment from new housing or other developments must be balanced by an equivalent reduction elsewhere. This helps to mitigate damage to important habitats from excessive nutrients.

However, implementing nutrient neutrality through mitigation measures has caused delays to large housing projects in many areas of England.  There were concerns this could severely hamper efforts to boost housing supply, as outlined in the government’s Levelling Up agenda.

The UK government therefore proposed amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) that sought to provide developers with more certainty on nutrient neutrality. However, these amendments failed to gain sufficient support in the House of Lords.

In response, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) issued an updated statement on September 20th. The update confirmed that nutrient neutrality, the delays it is causing to housing delivery, and the wider need to restore our waterways remains a government priority.

Significantly, the update emphasises a new duty for water companies to upgrade designated wastewater treatment plants by 2030.  Developers and local authorities will also be required to consider these upgrades as certain when conducting habitat regulations assessments for new housing proposals.

The new duty on water companies to upgrade wastewater treatment works is aimed at directly addressing the root cause of nutrient neutrality issues that have slowed housing development.

By discharging excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphates, outdated sewage treatment infrastructure has contributed to the degradation of natural habitats protected under the Habitats Directive. This in turn triggered the need for individual development projects to demonstrate nutrient neutrality through mitigation measures.

The upgrades of wastewater treatment works are intended to address nutrient neutrality issues by:

  • Modernised treatment facilities will have enhanced nutrient removal technologies, able to filter out higher levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from outgoing effluent water before discharge into rivers, lakes, etc. This directly lowers the nutrient load contributions from a major source.
  • Rather than focusing mitigation efforts project-by-project, which has led to inefficiencies and legal disputes, upgrading core infrastructure takes a preventative approach to nutrient management at the catchment scale.
  • With nutrient loads decreasing area-wide over time as upgrades are completed, individual developments will face lower requirements to demonstrate reductions elsewhere to achieve neutrality.  Some mitigation steps may no longer be necessary.
  • A designated, mandatory program of wastewater facility upgrades provides certainty for planners and developers.  Knowing future nutrient reductions are guaranteed helps speed up approval processes that currently languish due to uncertainty.
  • Local authorities will have to consider only a site’s residual nutrient impact after accounting for programmed sewage upgrades, streamlining assessments.
  • The 2030 deadline encourages timely action but gives flexibility to strategize upgrades where impacts are greatest, ensuring the most functionally impaired treatment works are prioritised.
  • Ongoing reductions in nutrients entering the natural environment should lead to long-term water quality improvements beyond just facilitating new housing growth.

This allows developers and local authorities to rely on the anticipated improvements to wastewater treatment when assessing proposed housing sites under habitat regulations. Knowing nearby wastewater works will soon discharge at a reduced nutrient load helps satisfy nutrient neutrality concerns in a planned, area-wide manner.

Additionally, the statement noted a list of treatment works scheduled for upgrades will be published within three months of the LURB receiving Royal Assent. The government is aiming to pass the bill before the King’s Speech on the 7 November, providing clarity on infrastructure changes that could help overcome barriers to development from nutrient neutrality compliance.

In summary, while recent amendments did not pass, this policy update outlines the government’s continued prioritisation of both environmental protection and housing goals through upcoming provisions in the finalised Levelling Up Bill.

Related Content

We’ve covered Nutrient Neutrality in a few articles in the last 18month, The Basics of Nutrient Neutrality, and as we’re based in the North East Nitrates & Nutrient Neutrality: Teesmouth & Cleveland Coast Special Protection Area / Ramsar.

We’ve put together various documents which developers need to be aware of:

Neutrient neutraility update Oct 23