We estimate around 20,000 new homes a year have been put on hold as a result legal protections to clean and protect our precious water ways. This is a complex challenge, dealing with key priorities for councils and communities, housing, growth and our environment.
So, on the behalf of councils, the LGA have undertaken this policy inquiry to understand the issues further, to engage across the wide range of partners, and to propose short and long-term solutions. This report summarises the findings.
Only 16 per cent of rivers are close to their natural state, according to Defra’s most recent annual report and improving river water quality is a priority for government. The extension of nutrient and water neutrality advice to more areas cannot be ruled out.
Nutrient neutrality and water neutrality are separate issues with different causes, but both effectively create a moratorium on new development. This is threatening development and preventing housebuilding at a time when the demand for social housing is growing rapidly.
Evidence presented to the inquiry demonstrated the significant amount of effort from councils and other partners that is going into schemes to mitigate the impact of nutrient and water neutrality and allow planning permission for new developments to be signed off.
This is an area where information on solutions could be better shared. While councils welcomed additional government funding for catchments affected by nutrient neutrality, this is not enough to cover the need for council time, resources and the need for specialist technical expertise. Mitigations to nutrient pollution such as creating new wetlands are expensive, time consuming and land hungry.
Many of those participating in the inquiry want to see long term strategies to improve water quality and quantity. Solving the problems of today does not “turn off the tap” of nutrients, or provide strategic solutions to the challenge of creating a more efficient and sustainable approach to managing water supply. The need to raise the level of ambition and tackle the underlying issues was a strong message from participants in the inquiry.
Moving to the main recommendations of the inquiry, there are actions that should be considered now to break the deadlock on new development.
What needs to happen now
- Move quickly to enable housing development by investing in a new model of “Catchment Nutrient Plans” which give each catchment the flexibility to invest in the locally available solutions most likely to enable new homes, with strategic oversight from government to bring together support on common themes.
- Pool information on local solutions and make it accessible to all partners, for example by providing resources in one place. This could be done by creating a hub, or toolkit for sharing mitigations
- Give the agricultural sector clear guidance on use of fertilisers and livestock practices in areas affected by nutrient neutrality, alongside access to finance, technical and strategic support, backed up with monitoring and enforcement by the regulator.
On both water and nutrient neutrality:
- Increase the pool of expertise and knowledge through formal skill sharing arrangements between agencies, for example between Natural England and councils.
On water neutrality:
- Review and share lessons from the experience of councils in West Sussex, to develop a path that can be used if other areas are affected by water neutrality in the future.
- Central government must step up engagement with councils.
What needs to happen to develop sustainable, whole systems solutions to nutrient and water neutrality
- Clarity on the roles of the regulators and their responsibility for protecting rivers and protected sites from nutrients and over abstraction of water.
- Introduce catchment level river restoration strategies with the tools and resources to deliver
- Develop an agreement at national level between councils and the water companies on a data sharing framework and response times. Where water companies fail to provide data to councils within specific timeframes, penalties should apply (such as a fine).
- Central and local government should work together on a new “trailblazer model” to explore how the experience in resolving nutrient neutrality can be developed in other environmental protection issues.
- Explore what restoration in 2050 could look like, as part of a wider conversation with the public and stakeholders on the relationship between nature restoration and the need to provide resilience to a changing climate.
Evidence presented to the Local Government Association’s inquiry makes the scale of the challenge of nutrient and water neutrality clear. Advice to local planning authorities on nutrient and water neutrality has rippled out to affect whole councils and wider communities. To quote a council leader, it is “the biggest community leadership issue we face”.
The starting point for the LGA’s work on nutrient and water neutrality was feedback from member councils. While the situation is different in each river catchment area, councils wanted a strong national voice to represent their shared concerns and challenges. The LGA’s Environment, Economy, Housing and Transport Board discussed nutrient and water neutrality at one of their meetings supported by a presentation from Herefordshire Council on the impact of nutrient pollution on the River Wye and River Lugg catchment areas.
Having seen the complexity of the issues and the scale of the challenge, the Board recommended the creation of a policy inquiry. The inquiry had two aims, to investigate and understand the root causes of nutrient pollution and over extraction of water, and recommend sustainable whole-system solutions to these challenges. In setting up the inquiry, it was important to hear from a range of stakeholders as well as councils. The LGA welcomed the views of the farming sector, as well as national organisations involved in regulation and protection of wildlife.
This report explores out the challenges that councils and other stakeholders are facing, and sets out recommendations for action that is urgently need now, and in the longer term to support sustainable, whole system approaches.
How we did the research
A cross-party group of councillors led the inquiry, reporting into the LGA’s Environment, Economy, Housing and Transport Board. The group was chaired by Cllr David Renard, Leader of Swindon Council, and included Cllr Federica Smith-Roberts, Leader of Somerset West and Taunton Council, Cllr Loic Rich, Cornwall Council and Cllr Alan Waters, Leader of Norwich City Council.
Information was initially gathered from stakeholders through a survey, investigating the impact of these issues not only on the environment, but also on areas such as the economy and employment, health and leisure, inequalities, and development management. We also requested information on priority challenges, potential solutions, and experiences of engagement with partner organisations. This gave people an opportunity to raise the issues of most importance to them and provide detailed responses to the policy enquiry. It also enabled those who could not attend the roundtables to shape the discussions. The responses provided background to the roundtables and formed a basis for discussion at the next stage of the process.
The survey was followed by two roundtables, focused on water neutrality and nutrient neutrality respectively. The discussions involved stakeholders from local government, DLUHC, DEFRA, the Environment Agency and the National Farmers’ Union, among others. These roundtables examined what can be done across the whole environment and water system to reduce the stresses on fragile habitats.
This enabled the majority of stakeholders affected by these issues to be involved in the discussions. It also demonstrated the complexity of the challenges that local authorities are facing. This provided useful explanations as to why many of the current solutions will not work in the longer term and encouraged discussion of the root causes of nutrient pollution and over extraction of water. The roundtables were also a space where potential sustainable whole-system solutions could be developed, and stakeholders could act as a sounding board for one another’s ideas.
Through the survey and roundtables, we were able to understand the perspectives of a range of key stakeholders and the contribution each can make to addressing the key challenges.
A brief outline of nutrient and water neutrality
The RSPB’s Troubled Waters report outlines how poor water quality threatens wildlife and people. This includes the potential for: fish to die en masse; reduced biodiversity - threatening the stability of the food chain; and water that can become dangerous for people to swim in. The Wildlife Trusts highlight the importance of these areas to people, sharing that 88 per cent of those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland agree freshwater habitats are a ‘national treasure’ and 87 per cent want more to be done to protect them.
Phosphorous and nitrogen occur naturally in the environment, but at high levels these nutrients can be harmful to wildlife, causing excessive growth of algae and plants. In 2021, the Environment Agency reported that about 70 per cent of total inputs of nitrates in water came from agriculture, with the secondary contributor nationally being sewage effluent at 25 to 30 per cent. Patterns of nutrient pollution vary by region depending on population density, and the extent and type of agriculture. Some of the councils taking part in the inquiry were affected by high levels of both nutrients, others only by one.
In England, Natural England monitors the condition of special habitats and provides advice to local planning authorities. Nutrient neutrality refers to the advice Natural England have given to developers to ensure the amount of nutrient pollution (usually phosphates and nitrates) entering rivers does not increase as a result of new development. There is a legal requirement to keep pollution below prescribed levels in areas of particular ecological importance, such as Special Protection Areas or Special Areas of Conservation, and this applies to any areas which drain into a watercourse that ultimately flows into a protected area. Where these levels are exceeded, and the advice is in place, Local Planning Authorities cannot lawfully grant permission for new development to take place, unless they can satisfy themselves it will not cause further harm to the natural environment (i.e., they are nutrient neutral).
To add to the challenge, there are different short term solutions to consider depending on the type of nutrient(s) present.
Examples of this were highlighted in survey responses and during the roundtable on nutrients:
|Nutrient||Example of the type of mitigating action put in place to allow development to go ahead in the short term under nutrient neutrality advice|
|Nitrates and phosphates||Strategic wetlands, for example in Ashford.|
|Nitrates||Remove land from agricultural use, for example in the areas around the Solent|
|Phosphates||Upgraded wastewater treatment facilities, for example in Somerset west and Taunton where this is being considered as part of a package of measures|
Water neutrality refers to similar advice from Natural England which states that any development that takes place must not increase the rate of water abstraction for drinking water supplies above existing levels. In areas where wildlife is already declining, water abstraction can pose a further threat. Current water neutrality advice applies to an area of West Sussex, and important natural habitats. The Arun Valley is notable for its flood plain wetlands, which provide an important habitat for wintering birds and rare plants and species.
Nutrient and water neutrality have different causes and solutions, but they are interlinked issues which are rapidly growing in importance due to their impact on the environment, and the consequent effects this is having on councils’ capability to consent to new housing.
Impact so far
Following the extension of nutrient neutrality advice by Natural England earlier this year, seventy four councils have had a catchment impacted. In regard to water neutrality advice, a small number of local authorities within the Sussex North water supply zone have so far been affected, including Horsham, Crawley, Mid Sussex and Chichester. This advice has effectively established a moratorium on new development. Housebuilding represents a small proportion of the nutrients entering waterways, with agriculture and sewage effluent being the main sources. In some council areas, a nutrient neutrality order affects 100 per cent of new building.
As the LGA’s report on nutrient and water neutrality shows, eight locations have 100 per cent of new build Energy Performance Certificate (EPCs) covered by advice area and a further twelve have 89 per cent to 99 per cent of their new housing delivered in an advice area. This impacts the rate at which housing can be built, as additional nutrients created by new development must be mitigated against.
This comes at a time when demands on councils to build housing are significant. The most recent figures for 2022 show that 99,270 households were living in temporary accommodation and more than 1.2 million households are currently on the social housing waiting list. There are also 37,000 asylum seekers currently living in hotels. This places further burdens on councils to rapidly meet the ever-growing housing need. Given these pressures, and the increasing cost of living, the numbers of those on housing waiting lists are likely to increase, particularly if local authorities are not able to keep up with growing demand.
The country’s financial challenges mean that economic growth is increasingly important. Councils must be able to update their town centres and deliver innovative regeneration plans. If councils cannot allow development to go ahead because of neutrality advice, affected places risk falling behind on their ambitions.
So far, restrictions on development due to water neutrality are limited to a few councils in West Sussex. However, water resources more generally are under pressure in parts of England and the Environment Agency has pointed out the need for a long term plan for safeguard water supply as summers become hotter and rainfall less predictable due to climate change. The potential for water neutrality advice to be issued to more areas cannot be ruled out.
Responses to the LGA survey suggest that the longer term impacts of nutrient and water neutrality advice are still emerging. The pressure on council funding is difficult to quantify accurately. Councils noted that in addition to increased costs from working on solutions they were also worse off because new development had halted, reducing expected sources of funding from planning fees and the new homes bonus.
Aside from financial impacts, there is evidence of pressure on non-nutrient areas from speculative development. Affordable housing programmes have been caught up in the effective moratoriums, and the human cost of this was noted as a concern.
Government and other agencies response to nutrient and water neutrality
Additional government of funding of £100,000 has been provided to catchments affected by nutrient neutrality.
There has not been an equivalent package of funding for the catchment area affected by water neutrality.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill should, when passed, contain a new statutory duty on water and sewerage companies in England to upgrade wastewater treatment works to the highest technically achievable limits by 2030 in nutrient neutrality areas. Water companies will be required to undertake these upgrades in a way that tackles the dominant nutrient(s) causing pollution in the catchment of habitats sites. However, this only applies to water companies in England leaving a question open for the river catchments that cross the English and Welsh borders.
Defra’s Environmental Improvement Plan, published in January 2023, commits to:
- Tackle nutrient pollution, including by upgrading 160 wastewater treatment works by 2027 and providing increased advice and incentives to support a shift to sustainable agricultural techniques.
- Restore 400 miles of river through the first round of Landscape Recovery projects and establish 3,000 hectares of new woodlands along England’s rivers.
- Roll out water efficiency labelling across appliances and ensure water companies deliver a 50 per cent reduction in leakages by 2050.
Natural England is establishing a national nutrient mitigation scheme. The scheme will be open to all developers, and credits will be offered in batches which developers can apply for.
Issues and challenges
Challenges raised on both nutrient and water neutrality
Funding and resources
The challenge of convening partners and making best use of limited resources was a recurring theme for both nutrient and water neutrality. The potential to align investment aimed at flood prevention, nature restoration and agriculture was mentioned by several participants. Existing funding streams that could be directed towards this (such as funding aimed at farm improvements, woodland creation, nature recovery) are tied to different government departments and do not work holistically. There is an opportunity for devolution of the various funding streams that exist, allowing areas to bring them together more effectively.
At the same time concerns were raised about the loss of other funding streams to support growth and housing because of the delay created by nutrient and water neutrality. For example, funding from the affordable homes programme where sites fall into neutrality advice areas.
There is a recurring frustration across areas affected by nutrient and water neutrality about the lack of levers for councils to require action from others, notably the water companies.
Survey responses from councils expressed concern over the lack of clarity over who is responsible for creating long-term solutions. Councils want the water industry to raise its level of ambition. Many councils pointed out that while local planning authorities cannot agree new development unless nutrient neutrality can be proved, the water companies are not being held to account in the same way.
The impact on local plans and sustainable development
Local plans are a cornerstone of sustainable development, using a process of consultation to arrive at an agreed strategy for growth.
Nutrient and water neutrality has affected councils in different ways, but a recurring theme was the ‘bolt from the blue’ of receiving an instruction to halt development in neutrality areas without any warning. This has cut across agreed local development plans with serious consequences for councils and developers.
An unwanted aspect of nutrient neutrality is that it can create pressure to develop in areas not covered by neutrality advice. These areas may not be considered sustainable for development due to other environmental concerns. This is undermining the role of local plans in determining where development should take place.
In some places the supply of land for development is already limited by flood risk and other environmental protections. Councils argued strongly for local flexibility in forecasting future land supply.
Challenges specific to nutrient neutrality
Prevention versus cure – getting the balance right
At the roundtable on nutrients, councils explained that offsetting activity such as the creation of new wetlands is complex to implement and expensive. For all the effort involved it offsets only a small amount of the nutrients entering rivers, and does not address excess nutrients arising from agriculture and treated sewage.
The findings from the survey illustrated that stakeholders are concerned about the long-term viability of mitigation strategies for nutrients. In particular, the amount of land needed for these solutions, as it can be difficult to repurpose or purchase sufficient land to meet offsetting targets. The Environment Agency noted that mitigations such as wetlands need to be properly assessed to ensure that they do not create other risks to the environment such as increasing flood risk. Many stakeholders raised concerns about taking land out of use for farming to use for nutrient mitigation and the impact this will have on food supply.
Mitigation solutions often have long lead in times which slows down housebuilding and development further. Councils also shared that where mitigation schemes are paid for with budgets for development, this will result in less money for affordable housing and community infrastructure. The enforcement of mitigation strategies also risks deterring SME construction companies from bidding for development work, as they cannot afford the additional cost of mitigation.
There is a strong appetite to look at the longer-term picture, and getting the balance of investment right between activity to offset nutrients and long-term investment to tackle the source of excess nutrients. For example, the installation of wastewater treatment facilities could remove nutrients at source and at scale compared to the creation of a wetland.
In complex water and wetland environments (for example in the Somerset Levels and Moors) further detailed research could help to understand the source of nutrients and this in turn would help to develop long term strategies. A legacy of nutrients built up in the soil over many decades has been recorded in Herefordshire and may be an underlying problem in other river catchments.
Councils questioned the thresholds and levels of significance for new development in the current process for calculating nutrient loading, and the allocation of reductions to different sectors (farming, water treatment, new development). Nutrient neutrality is seen to penalise development and housing rather than the main contributors to excess nutrients. The Herefordshire’s phosphate plan notes that actions on the River Wye would be substantially different if the ‘fair share’ approach to allocating responsibility for nutrients is changed. Regulation needs to drive the right activity for the longer term.
The Natural England national mitigation scheme was welcomed and further details on this are needed.
Investment in poorly performing rural sewage works
An issue noted by those working in rural areas, was the challenge of tackling poorly performing rural sewage treatment works. Upgrades are currently planned according to population levels, and the number of people living in rural areas is consequently too low to warrant investment through the current model. Therefore, additional investment is needed to target these areas.
Tailored solutions are necessary but challenging
Councils are working proactively with partners to put mitigations in place. The need for solutions to be tailored to each set of local circumstances came out strongly, although this is itself is a challenge, for example for national organisations dealing with multiple solutions and local approaches.
Farming rules for water were introduced in 2018 to reduce and prevent water pollution from agriculture. The rules are enforced by the Environment Agency, and councils are unsure if, or how they are being used to address nutrient neutrality. An example was given from Herefordshire of a regional approach where the council is working with the Environment Agency and local farmers on the application of manures and the interpretation of what are ‘reasonable’ steps for farmers to take to mitigate the risk of diffuse pollution.
Investment in farm infrastructure should be part of a longer-term solution, and implementation of funding such as the Defra Slurry Infrastructure grant could be beneficial as this would enable slurry to be stored in a way that minimises nutrient losses into the environment. However, investment alone is insufficient, and the delivery of such projects needs to be carefully considered. Backlogs in planning applications in neutrality areas could lead to delays in implementing such infrastructure upgrades. Planning reforms can also delay these developments. As a result, farmers may be discouraged from applying for such grants, and so better planning is required to ensure funding can have the intended consequences.
Offset schemes like wetlands and land-use change are land-hungry, and this can clash with other objectives to support food production. Stakeholders across the board want to see solutions that allow agriculture to continue.
Technical support, expertise, and innovation
Responses to the inquiry’s survey commented on the sudden shock of nutrient and water neutrality advice. Coming without warning, councils, regulators and the private sector have not had the time to develop the expertise and capacity to deal with the immediacy of this issue.
Mitigation strategies to allow nutrient neutrality are often complex, for example creation and management of wetlands. The role of the Planning Advisory Service in sharing knowledge across councils was welcomed. While there is great value in this central role of information sharing, everyone, including the private sector, is struggling with the lack of specialist expertise. There is scope for this to improve in two ways: by bringing information together in a more structured way and by increasing the pool of experts.
Once the level of technical support and expertise is enhanced, better long-term solutions to this issue should be explored. Central government should look to other countries to explore innovative practices that could be adopted in the UK. For example, anaerobic digestive systems are increasingly used in Denmark to recover nutrients. These systems use bacteria to “break down organic matter – such as animal manure, wastewater biosolids, and food wastes - in the absence of oxygen”. As the US Environmental Protection Agency explains, this helps to “improve soil health by converting the nutrients in manure to a more accessible form for plants to use and can help protect the local water resources by reducing nutrient run-off and destroying pathogens”. Biogas production in Denmark is also increasingly used to for electricity and heating, meaning this solution to nutrient neutrality could also provide necessary innovation amid rising energy prices. Canada is using similar biogas solutions, and this case study of a Canadian farm demonstrates how this can enhance nutrient management and produce a “nutrient dense, low moisture product to easily move nutrients where they are needed most”.
Challenges specific to water neutrality
Bringing forward investment
While there are some options available to councils for offsetting nutrient pollution, the scope for addressing water quantity (water neutrality) is much more limited. Councils attending the roundtable pointed out that that the long-term solutions to water supply issues must come from the water companies. This may require significant investment in infrastructure, for example new reservoirs and desalination plants.
Levers and the power to act
For water neutrality, very few of the levers to reduce the pressure on water supply rest with local authorities.
What can they do to support
Responsible body for regulation
Provide infrastructure to increase supply (e.g. reservoirs, desalination plants)
Change practices to reduce demand for water
|Ofwat, Environment Agency via abstraction license|
|Industry and agriculture||
Change practices to reduce demand for water
Environment Agency via abstraction licenses
Owners of existing homes and building
|Change practices to reduce demand for water|
|Developers||Build to the highest standard of water efficiency||
Local planning authorities through allocation of housing and policy for efficient design
If councils have social housing stock they may be able to increase water efficiency to offset new development
Best practice design for water efficiency defined by planning policy
Impact on council resources
Dealing with water neutrality has also council resources under strain. One council noted that six new employees were needed overnight, and the issue has taken time from leaders and chief executives. Councils have paid for a water study and brought in consultants with technical expertise. All this has immediate and large funding implications. Councils noted that catchments affected by nutrient neutrality have been offered government funding, but no funds have been made available for water neutrality. Councils have had to find funding from other pots, for example the LEP.
Information from water companies
Councils reported delays in getting key information and this had a knock-on effect on their ability to sign off planning applications. For example, it took twelve months for the water company to provide information on leaks in the affected area.
Water neutrality is much harder to offset than nutrient neutrality. There is a risk that the mitigations put in place create a long list of small offsetting schemes, all of which will need to be monitored. Bringing forward larger supply schemes would be a better use of resources and could be done more quickly, which is why support is needed at the national level. Councils are reliant on water companies to put these larger schemes into practice, such as new reservoirs and desalination plants. In the West Sussex area, the water company’s timeframe for solutions is 2026 to 2030 and councils have no leverage to require investment to be brought forward. Councils would like to see the regulator Ofwat taking a stronger role.
Building standards and retrofitting
Council levers for tackling water neutrality were discussed. Councils could in theory set higher standards of water efficiency in new buildings than the current 110 litres per person/day. However, some doubt was expressed about whether this would work in practice. A wider conversation with the development sector could help councils gain buy-in to higher water efficiency standards. Retrofitting council owned housing with water saving measures is another option to create headroom in water neutrality, but this would not be available to councils without their own housing stock.
EU legislation has been a driver for tackling water neutrality, but there was consensus that legislation will not be the only challenge in dealing with demand for water. Water bodies in other areas are at risk because of abstraction. All partners need to work together on long term recovery plans for water bodies and push water efficiency up the agenda.
The inquiry set out to recommend sustainable whole systems solutions to the challenges of nutrient and water neutrality. Participants in the survey and roundtables were clear on the need for long term action to address structural failings in the current system for managing water supply and quality.
It will take time and effort to deliver whole systems solutions. In the shorter term there are actions that can be taken now to help councils and partners deal with these complex challenges:
- The inquiry heard strong evidence that issues with water quantity (supply) are likely to increase over the coming years. It is vital that we review and share lessons from experience in West Sussex, to develop a path that can be used if other areas are affected by water neutrality in the future. Also, central government must step up engagement with councils on water neutrality, with a role for the LGA to facilitate engagement between national and local politicians.
- To tackle the shortage of technical expertise and delays in agreeing mitigations for nutrient neutrality, we need to start pooling information and making it accessible to all partners, for example by providing resources in one place. This could be done by creating a hub, or toolkit for sharing implementation strategies for mitigation.
- We need to increase the pool of expertise and knowledge through formal skill sharing arrangements between agencies, for example between Natural England and councils.
- Pilot new approaches to working at catchment level to restart development in areas affected by nutrient neutrality advice. A ‘catchment nutrient plan’ would have a short-term focus on neutrality but could act as a bridge to a longer-term sustainable approach to improving water quality. This may need additional funding, and commitment from partner organisations to working with the local planning authority.
Recommendations for sustainable whole systems solutions
Turning to whole systems solutions, the inquiry did not hear demands for new legislation. There was a consensus across stakeholders that policy stability is important for obtaining investment, for example in securing land and investment in nutrient mitigation schemes such as the creation of wetlands.
There are systems and frameworks in place to monitor and improve water quality, and ensure that extraction of water is sustainable. However, these have not worked as they should over many years, leading to the current crisis caused by neutrality advice.
Clarity on roles and responsibilities
Clarity on the roles of the regulators and their responsibility for protecting rivers and protected sites from nutrients and over abstraction of water. There is legislation and a regulatory framework in place that should prevent harmful levels of nutrients from entering water systems and protect fragile habitats. For example, competent authorities have duties for restoration under the habitat regulation. However, the requirements of the legislation and the obligations on bodies responsible for protecting the environment (such as the regulatory functions of the Environment Agency and Natural England) have failed to tackle pollution at source. This is the fundamental problem that over many years has led to poor water quality and environment damage. To move forward we must have clarity on the role of the regulators and a recognition that the current system is broken.
There may be an interest for the Office of Environmental Protection in determining where responsibilities are not being followed.
Funding and governance
Central and local government should work together on a new ‘trailblazer model’ of funding and governance with teeth and devolved powers and funding. The inquiry heard about disjointed funding streams (for example separate funding streams for nature flood management, nature recovery and innovation in agriculture) and the challenges council face in driving action across a broad set of stakeholders. Natural England, the Environment Agency and the water companies are key partners and must be fully engaged.
The trailblazer model could test and accelerate place-based approaches to the range of environmental protection and enhancement ambitions of the Environmental Improvement Programme. They could have elements of devolution and growth deals, bringing partners and funding streams together in a stronger governance framework and building on the opportunities presented by reforms to funding for agriculture (the ELMs scheme) and biodiversity net gain in the planning system and local nature recovery strategies.
A further recommendation on funding is to explore work that some catchment areas are progressing on natural capital and water fund models. The Rivers Trust and Defra have been looking into this, and there may be examples that can be replicated.
Working at catchment level
Introduce catchment level river restoration strategies with the tools and resources to deliver. Many councils highlighted the need to work at river catchment level to develop an effective strategy for improving water quality. The Environment Act introduced Protected Sites Strategies as a new way of bringing partners together to protect and restore important habitats. Five pilot projects have been announced, but progress on the implementation of protected sites strategies is unclear.
As a piece of research, we could explore what restoration in 2050 could look like, as part of a wider conversation with the public and stakeholders on the relationship between nature restoration and the need to provide resilience to a changing climate.
A theme coming out of the feedback is the future state of our rivers and protected habitats, and whether ‘restoration’ implies that they can be taken back to the quality seen in the 1950s before population growth and the development of modern farming practices. Many participants pointed out the challenges posed by climate change, as well as the accumulation of nutrients over many decades. This will be a difficult message to convey but there needs to be an honest conversation with the public about the condition of SACs and SSIs in 2050, taking climate change into account.
This should set out the relationship between restoration and the need to adapt and become resilient to a changing climate. It should also identify immediate actions that could benefit restoration activity.
- Water companies to review fees or data and remove them where they are a barrier to work on nutrient and water neutrality.
- Agreement at national level on data sharing framework and response times.
Where water companies fail to provide data to councils within specific timeframes penalties should apply (such as a fine).
The contribution of the water companies to tackling nutrient and water neutrality was raised in survey responses and the roundtables, due to their role in wastewater treatment and water supply.
Councils welcomed the government’s requirement for water companies to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities by 2030, but noted that this would be challenging to deliver because of the number of upgrades required and costs involved.
Ofwat may need to play a stronger role in challenging water companies on prioritising improvements to protect priority habitats and address nutrient pollution, under the direction set out in the Strategic Policy statement 2022. This requires Ofwat to work with wider stakeholders to tackle environment pressures (as well as water companies) and use the regulatory framework as necessary.
Several councils raised the difficulty in accessing data from water companies, and in some cases, this resulted in the council paying a fee to the water company (for example to obtain data on the location of waste water treatment works). The slow speed of response is another concern.
Agriculture and land use
The agricultural sector must be given clear guidance on use of fertilisers and livestock practices in areas affected by nutrient neutrality. If necessary, this should be enforced through legally binding requirements. At the same time, farmers must have access to funding and incentives that support investment in sustainable farming practices.
The impact of nutrient and water neutrality on new development has been analysed by the LGA and others, but the effect on farming is not as well explored. The farming sector noted their challenges in putting in the infrastructure that will help to cut down on nutrient pollution and meeting wider net zero ambitions for farming. The block on new development is a worry for farmers in neutrality areas as planning applications for agricultural buildings that could help prevent nutrients escaping into the environment may be held up, for example slurry stores. This is an area where additional guidance and strong local partnership arrangements can help to overcome delays.
Changing farming practices could make a significant impact on the levels of nutrients entering rivers. However, many councils and stakeholders pointed out the consequences of taking productive farmland out of use as part of mitigation schemes for nutrient neutrality. There was consensus that it is not an either/or situation, and the best outcome is to sustain agriculture but with better land management practices. This needs to happen more quickly than it does now.
There was a strong appetite for a wider conversation about land use and how this could be affected by climate change. The role of local planning in looking strategically at land use and nature recovery was also seen as an opportunity. New policies such as biodiversity net gain in new development and local nature recovery strategies will come into force, starting with biodiversity net gain in November 2023.
List of the organisations providing evidence to the inquiry through survey responses and the roundtable discussions.