Nutrient Neutrality is a means of ensuring that development does not add to existing nutrient burdens. This provides certainty that the whole of the scheme is deliverable in line with regulation requirements. Nutrient Neutrality projects have already been undertaken widely in the UK, with some authorities regulated to protect the land, forests, and bodies of water. The UK government understands the need to build new homes while protecting and restoring nature, and because of this, Natural England have regulated a further 42 authorities to comply with Nutrient Neutrality. From the 16th of March onwards housing developers with projects in the process of planning submission, including reserved matters, will face delays. This has and will continue to have an immediate impact on applications, appeals, and UK development.

Nutrient Neutrality

Nutrient Neutrality is vital to protect the environment around us and ensure development is sustainable. And unless it can be proved, multiple developments around the UK will be delayed and restricted. The Home Builders Federation have calculated that over 60,000 homes have already been subject to this.  

To provide evidence of Nutrient Neutrality detailed research, Habitats Regulation Assessments (HRA) and calculations are vital. The HRA applies in the terrestrial environment and its waters, with a key aim to protect and enhance sites.

New developments must calculate their nutrient impact to the site, from water, waste, treatments, and agriculture, in line with HRA requirements. Counterbalances must be adjusted through mitigation to ensure there is no net nutrient increase. These calculations can be complicated and are not quick or easy to establish. This means that developers, and their dedicated ecologists will have to invest time addressing these new regulations. This will be exacerbated by the need to implicate solutions if Nutrient Neutrality cannot be proved.

Implications

Nutrient Neutrality is a new process within some LPAs, and most will not have the systems in place to manage these processes or the expertise to assess the ecological merits at the current time, inevitably resulting in delays. The Nutrient Neutrality regulation changes have been implemented just as Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is to become mandatory in November 2023 under the Environment Act (2021). These measures, alongside Nutrient Neutrality regulation will put most local authorities under even more pressures and time constraints. Ensuring Nutrient Neutrality is time-consuming, and reliant on assessing detailed expertise which is hard to comprehend without prior specialist knowledge and understanding. 

Solutions

1. Ecological Considerations

If Nutrient Neutrality cannot be proven, solutions to counterbalance must be implicated before development can start. To solve this issue, a robust approach to the HRA is necessary. First and foremostly, the most effective solution is to plan the entire development around multi-functional green infrastructure. Pre-planning with an ecologist is therefore vital. It is advised for an ecologist to be employed at the earliest date, to ensure that ecological considerations are prioritised and there is a comprehensive understanding of what is feasible for the specific site.

2. Site Mitigation

If construction is already underway, and counterbalances are evident, the best way to manage this is to build specific features into the site that mitigate these. This will require a budget, management to ensure the approaches are successful, and effort to guarantee it is cost-effective. There will also be the need to establish a route for funding for these measures. It is once again important to employ an ecologist as soon as possible. This will keep the cost of counterbalancing as low as possible.  

3. Wetland Creation

The UK Government website currently recommends buying land to create wetlands to mitigate – but this is not a quick process and may take years to effectively implement as a solution. The government, in tandem with Natural England, have also announced a series of practical, financial, and legislative measures to help address the issue. These will however take a period of time to be installed and to become effective support to developers.

4. Counterbalance Options

Other methods to counterbalance include offsetting, changes to site layouts, or the addition of nature-based solutions, such as Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) may be effective solutions. Once again, an expert ecologist is vital here to ensure that counterbalances are corrected, and Nutrient Neutrality is reliably reached. 

Benefits

The benefits of Nutrient Neutrality are clear. It will enable development to proceed without causing further deterioration to Habitat Designated Sites (HDS). These sites are protected areas of special status due to their natural and cultural importance, which subsequently come under laws to make sure that the nature and wildlife are not harmed or destroyed. It provides an effective regulatory change to ensure that new homes can be built, and the natural environment can be protected at the same time. It will also enable permanent land use change, providing multiple benefits to the natural environment and to its people now and in the future. Nutrient Neutrality will permanently contribute to the Nature Recovery Network outside of designated sites and this will come at no direct cost to taxpayers. Finally, the new measures will hopefully ensure that ecologists are involved earlier in planning projects and that their efforts will be consistently prioritised.

Plan Ahead

Evidently, there isn’t the infrastructure capacity in the planning system to address all Nutrient Neutrality queries at present. To manage this, plan far ahead and don’t be ambiguous in detail as you will be more likely to experience delays. Guidance can be sourced by an independent ecological consultant who has the necessary skills and expertise to guide you through the process.

Eight Associates’ have a team of in-house qualified, expert ecologists, and SuDS professionals to guide through the process, assist with solutions and make the addition of Nutrient Neutrality seamless. For advice on what these changes mean, please contact our professionals here

Stacey Cougill, Director

Stacey is a Director at Eight Associates where she leads the ecology and conservation aspects of the business. She has delivered a wide range of sustainability projects of all scales over the last 19 years which includes offsetting using bespoke nature-based solutions.