Scrapping Nutrient Neutrality rules that protect our rivers would be a national scandal

This week the Westminster Government proposed removing water pollution protections from our rivers and estuaries.

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Polluting our rivers 

The legislation the Westminster Government wants to scrap is vital as it protects against water pollution caused by developments near protected areas. Natural England have concluded that at least 27 protected sites – from Cumbria, to Devon and Norfolk to Shropshire – are on the edge and cannot continue to take excess nutrients without further choking their protected habitats and species. Any new housing in those areas has to demonstrate “Nutrient Neutrality” to get planning permission. This means they need to offset the pollution they will generate. 

What is Nutrient Neutrality? 

Nutrient Neutrality means new developments must ensure that any nutrients that enter the water course must be offset by measures elsewhere in the catchment to reduce inputs.   

These nutrients, such as phosphates and nitrates can cause water quality to deteriorate which harms wildlife in many ways. One common way is excessive algae growth which depletes oxygen levels and crowds out sunlight, threatening the other aquatic wildlife which lives there.  

While agriculture is the biggest cause of excessive nutrients in our waterways, developments including housing can also be a risk because of the extra sewage from the homes and run-off from construction sites.

A development can show Nutrient Neutrality by, for example, offsetting the same volume of nutrients it creates by supporting the new creation of wetlands and buffer strips on farms that can help deal with the nutrient load. 

It’s starting to work - nature-positive mitigation schemes are on course for delivery across the country, helping farmers diversify their businesses whilst keeping our treasured spaces from becoming open sewers. Nutrient Neutrality is not causing a hard block on new development and steps to address the short-term delay are starting to pay off. But UK government’s proposals would tear up environmental protections permanently.

Water Vole sat in shallow water eating a leaf.

Not listening 

Michael Gove, in his role as the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, plans to remove water pollution protections at a time when our rivers and estuaries need more protection, not less. Failure to protect them is a national scandal.

Katie-Jo Luxton, RSPB's director of conservation, said “Nutrient Neutrality was aimed to be a ‘bare minimum’ tool to enable potentially damaging new development to proceed by taking other polluters out of the system. 

"If Nutrient Neutrality rules are scrapped, pollution will accumulate unchecked and our rivers face total ecological collapse. There is already widespread shock at the state of our waterways and demands for urgent action, yet it seems the UK Government isn’t listening to the public’s outrage at the lack of stewardship of our common natural heritage. 

“We urgently need to tackle the issue of nutrient pollution in our rivers and there are plenty of cost-effective measures to do so, not least enforcing the existing environmental and agricultural regulations. Without Nutrient Neutrality, commitments in the Environment Act and the Plan for Water cannot be met.” 

A drone shot of river Esk Glenesk, Scotland, surrounded by a body of yellow and brown leaved trees.

Less Protection

The Office for Environmental Protection has advised  Michael Gove and Therese Coffey, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that “the proposed changes would demonstrably reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in existing environmental law. 

“The Government has not adequately explained how, alongside such weakening of environmental law, new policy measures will ensure it still meets its objectives for water quality and protected site condition.” 

Losing confidence 

The removing of the Nutrient Neutrality rule is being proposed through an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. But the amendment undermines evidence-based policy making by requiring decision makers to "assume no impact" even when there might very well be evidence to the contrary. 

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. The Government promised to produce Diffuse Water Pollution plans for 37 sites "as soon as reasonably practical"  
That was seven years ago and so far only six plans have been published let alone implemented. We have lost confidence that more promised plans will tackle the urgent issues our most important wildlife sites and rivers are facing. 

Policy not the people 

We are in a nature and climate emergency and that demands urgent action. The RSPB is deeply frustrated by the government’s reneging on its environmental promises. But on Twitter this week that frustration led us to attack the people not the policy. This falls below the standard we set ourselves and for that we apologise.  

We will continue to campaign vigorously on behalf of nature but we will always do so in a polite and considered manner. 

Find out more about the importance of Nutrient Neutrality here.

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