Proposed Environmental Changes Threaten Freshwater Habitats

In a recent announcement, the UK Government unveiled plans to scrap nutrient neutrality legislation designed to protect our most vulnerable rivers, streams and lakes from extra sewage and other pollution from new homes. These proposals, referred to as a “Brexit Bonus” for housing developers, involve relaxing regulations designed to prevent pollution from homes themselves and from construction sites in critical freshwater habitats.

Other proposals – including the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme and funding to upgrade waste water treatment works – have been heralded by Government as mitigations. These changes could significantly harm some of our most vital wildlife areas and crucial ecosystems as they will not mitigate the development demand in all locations.

What are nutrient neutrality laws and why could removing them harm the environment?

A prominent contributor to pollution is the construction of new houses, which can result in the contamination of rivers and coastal areas. Rainwater and sewage from housing and construction sites can introduce excessive nutrients like nitrates and phosphorus into rivers, lakes, streams, and seas. This nutrient surplus – similar to that from waste water treatment works and agricultural practices –  can lead to a phenomenon known as “eutrophication,” characterized by harmful algae growth that obstructs light and depletes oxygen levels, ultimately endangering aquatic wildlife.

Nutrient Neutrality laws ensure new homes will not add further nutrients (pollutants – usually nitrogen or phosphorus) to already polluted waterbodies. Under current rules, developers have to show that they have mitigated any additional nutrients they produce before they get planning permission. Local Authorities are mandated to assess the potential impact of new construction on nutrient pollution in sensitive freshwater environments. And, the rules require developers to counterbalance pollution by creating habitats like wetlands, which filter out harmful nutrients.

Government’s Proposed Amendment and Shifting Responsibility

However, the government is proposing a new amendment, which instructs authorities not to engage in such considerations. The government’s aim is to streamline pollution controls, making them less expensive and time-consuming for housebuilders to accommodate the growing demand for housing.

Scrapping this effective legislation will mean that developers won’t have to take responsibility for reducing pollution caused by new housing and other developments. Instead, it abandons the “polluter plays principle” (one of our 5 key Nature2030 campaign asks) and puts the burden of dealing with pollution on Natural England, which is funded by taxpayers.

Concerns and Warnings

While the one-off £140 million fund for Natural England’s Nutrient Mitigation Scheme is welcome, it is unlikely to fully replace the substantial private sector investments that the current nutrient neutrality regulations would have generated to effectively combat pollution. Indeed, Natural England admits that the scheme will not meet the demand for mitigation in all areas. Without legal backing, this funding may not be secure and could be vulnerable to future budget cuts or government changes.  In addition, whilst the government has said it will introduce measures to upgrade treatment plants these and their timings are not in place.

England’s green watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, warns that if the proposed schedule, along with other amendments that weaken anti-pollution requirements on water companies, is passed, it could push fragile freshwater ecosystems to the brink of collapse.

The proposed [government] changes would demonstrably reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in existing environmental law. They are a regression”. They are calling on the government to explain in detail how it plans to improve the natural environment while weakening environmental law.

A backward step

Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL), a collaborative network of environmental organisations – including Earth Trust, argues strongly that nutrient neutrality should be maintained, that claims about these rules causing a housing slowdown aren’t accurate, and calls on peers to oppose the government’s potentially damaging proposals.

At Earth Trust, we have been advocating for building nature in to developments. And WWT’s ‘Wetlands for Water Quality’ route map shows how treatment wetlands can be a crucial part of tackling water pollution and restoring nature.

We don’t have to choose between more homes and clean water – both are achievable with forward thinking policies that include the existing nutrient neutrality regulations. Nutrient neutrality legislation is not a barrier to responsible development, it embeds understanding at source of the source of pollution and the direct impact of this on the natural world.

What you can do

These proposed changes in environmental rules put our fragile rivers and natural world at greater risk. The push towards “public-pays” for pollution mitigation, coupled with recent amendments, raises significant concerns about the future health of our freshwater ecosystems and the government’s commitment to environmental protection.

The House of Lords will consider the amendments this week.

We’d really appreciate your support in sharing our social media posts about this important issue. By doing so, we can help more people, including decision-makers, understand why this amendment should not be passed. Thank you for joining us in making a difference.