As an election looms, the true ‘green’ credentials of a government emerges. If recent political announcements are anything to go by, ‘algae green’ seems the most apt for the Conservative party. Why? Because algal blooms are a manifestation of yet another environmental setback – the scrapping of the Nutrient Neutrality Scheme that protects watercourses.
What is nutrient pollution?
Under the Nutrient Neutrality Scheme housing developers are required to offset nutrient pollution. This stems from the extra burden of human sewage, waste and storm water associated with new housing. In wet weather, storm overflows containing raw sewage pollute river catchment areas deemed already at risk by Natural England.
Nutrient pollution is the excessive release of nitrates and phosphates associated with these sewage discharges into nearby watercourses, which is preferentially used by primitive algae. This reproduces and grows at a rate that far outpaces everything else, leading to algal blooms that turn the surface of watercourses green. The blooms reduce the sunlight that can reach aquatic plants below the surface, which provide oxygen to aquatic species. The plants die and decay, decreasing the levels of oxygen in the water, and the whole ecosystem collapses. What once was a vibrant, diverse habitat turns into a slimy dead mess.
So why has the government U-turned?
The government claims the nutrient pollution regulation is impacting permissions for development and slowing down housing delivery across 74 local planning authorities. Hence Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, writes there is a need to scrap offsetting, “unlocking 100,000 homes … currently held up due to nutrient neutrality requirements”.
But is this really the case? Or is it more proof of successful lobbying by housing developers?
Andrew Impey, Chief Executive of Essex Wildlife Trust, has his suspicions. “It was only back in May that the government claimed they would not lower environmental protections and standards.” He points out that a government-estimated £140m bill will have to come out of the public purse to clean up the extra nutrient pollution, “meanwhile the share price of these billion pound companies are suddenly on the increase.”
A not-for-profit environmental credit scheme, based on a pilot scheme in the Solent, is in place in Norfolk to manage nutrient neutrality. “There is now a mechanism set up to create nutrient neutrality infrastructure,” explains Gareth Dalglish, Norfolk Wildlife Trust Director of Nature Recovery. “It involves selling credits to developers working in the catchments of the Yare, Bure and Wensum rivers. So why demolish the scheme now? These rules are about preventing pollution, not housing.”
What housing has been affected?
The Nutrient Neutrality Scheme is believed to have delayed the building of around 200 affordable homes and care facilities in North Norfolk over the past 18 months. However, the Competition and Markets Authority is investigating developer land banking as a more significant factor in slowing housing availability.
“The developments affected were for affordable homes,” says Cllr Wendy Fredericks, North Norfolk District Council Portfolio Holder for Housing and Peoples’ Services. “These are for local residents in the highest need. In North Norfolk we have up to 72 homeless households and up to 600 households in desperate need of homes.”
She explains that the council is committed to preserving and enhancing our environment. “Planning controls have always required environmental impact assessments with the Environment Agency being consultees in the development process.”
When asked about Michael Gove handing back £1.9billion to the Treasury after reportedly struggling to find housing projects to spend the money on, Cllr Frederick replies, “This money would have enabled thousands of affordable homes to be built. But North Norfolk District Council was not offered or told about this grant.”
By contrast, Green Party-controlled Mid Suffolk District Council is not one of the 74 planning authorities subject to the Nutrient Neutrality Scheme, says Council Leader Andy Mellen. The development challenge faced by Mid Suffolk and areas of Essex is water scarcity from over extraction and the inability for aquifers to replenish in the driest region of the country.
Scaremongering, Mr Sewernak?
“Make no mistake,” says Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts. “This is a license from the government for the commercial housebuilding lobby to profit from the pollution of our rivers. The UK,” he points out, “is ranked as one of the worst countries in Europe for water quality.”
In response to this significant criticism, whilst justifying the watering down of environmental rules for developers at a new-build housing estate in Norfolk, Rishi Sunak accused the national Wildlife Trust of “scaremongering”. However, given his government’s failure to tackle water pollution, this latest move is fast justifying his moniker “Mr Sewernak”.
Gareth Dalglish highlights the reason for the government backlash. “This is the first reversal of environmental protection [measures] in 30 years that were designed to protect conservation sites of international importance. It is the principle that is at stake as well as nutrient neutrality.”
Andrew Impey is more forthright, “The government’s latest decision to relinquish further environmental laws proves beyond any doubt there isn’t anything they won’t do if it is deemed helpful in their quest for re-election. Despite all the warm words,” he adds, “the bold statements, the manifesto pledges and the headline-grabbing promises, this government doesn’t give a damn about the environment.”