Market Insight

What Defra’s statement on water quality and nutrient pollution means in practice

On 20 July, Defra published a Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) in relation to improving water quality and tackling nutrient pollution.
July 28, 2022
A letter from the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities to the Heads of Planning, was also published on 21 July, detailing the announcement and how it will affect plan making, decision taking and housing delivery for Local Planning Authorities (LPAs).

What was announced by Defra is designed not only to tackle the long-term issue of nutrient pollution by significantly reducing pollution from existing and future homes in sensitive areas – it also seeks to now fast track the purchase of ‘nutrient credits’ by developers which will discharge the requirement to provide mitigation measures.

The announcement is a positive step forward, in addressing a long period of uncertainty, of balancing the necessary improvements to our water environments, with the recognised need to deliver new housing.

Having reviewed what was announced, we have summarised what will change as part of the Autumn amendments, to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.

Key highlights

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will place a new statutory duty on water and sewerage companies in England to upgrade their wastewater treatment works (WWTW) to the highest technically achievable limits by 2030, in the areas identified by Natural England (NE) as requiring nutrient neutrality.

Meanwhile, NE will be required to have standard calculations for nutrient credits and will be required to deliver a network of mitigation solutions available for purchase by housebuilders for new woodlands or wetlands, in every LPA area, requiring mitigation – with a view to progressing planning permissions.

The announcement set out that NE solutions should dovetail with existing private market-led and LPA-led solutions, rather than crowd-out existing provisions.

What this means in practice

Wastewater companies will have a statutory duty to provide vast improvements to their WWTW for the benefit of the medium and long-term.

In the short-term, the push for NE to get nutrient credits rolled out efficiently and effectively, will start to relieve the pressure on those housebuilders whose schemes are currently in limbo. To support NE’s progress, various government agencies are earmarked to accelerate and steer results.

We have seen a noticeable increase in the number of nutrient credit initiatives at a local level which have been market-led and LPA-led. Based on the announcement this trend is set to continue.

Overall, these are positive developments to help get house building moving, whilst improving wetland habitats across the country, with a vision for nutrient neutrality from now until 2030, and further marked improvements thereafter.

The Chief Planner’s letter to LPAs

The Chief Planner’s letter to the LPA Heads of Planning said that WWTWs are to be treated as a Certainty and to ‘include’ them for the purposes of the habitat regulations as part of their Local Plan making and decisions taking, for calculations of nutrient neutrality.

The rationale regarding the Certainty point will benefit housebuilders and LPAs alike – the former with progressing sites through the planning process, the latter in relation to their five-year housing land supply, the Local Plan Evidence Base and confidence for decision making.

Considering the measurable benefits that the new statutory duty on wastewater companies will bring, the statement and letter make clear that planning decisions can be made based on Certainty for delivery of the WWTW.

As a result, negotiations between developers and local authorities will progress and we are likely to see the use of pre-occupation conditions become more common, in cases where mitigation is forthcoming, rather than delaying determination of applications at the decision-making stage, which is far too often the case currently.

We look forward to the Autumn amendments and the introduction of the new statutory duty on waste water companies and eagerly anticipate a comprehensive list of proposed improvement WWTWs set for implementation between now and 2030; which will allow us to support our clients with allocations in Local Plans and the progression of their planning applications.

If you would like to find out more about the announcement from DEFRA and how it might affect you – whether you are a developer, housebuilder, or private landowner, do contact our planning team.