We are right in the teeth of the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity decline - our planet is in peril and healthy rivers lie right at the centre of solutions. A number of our most valuable watery conservation sites are teetering on the edge of total ecological collapse as a result of nutrient pollution.
What is nutrient pollution?
Nutrient pollution is excess nitrogen and phosphorus which, in high levels, causes rapid growth of algae and plants. These smother water courses and result in low oxygen levels, killing off the wildlife in a process known as eutrophication. The polluting levels of nutrients come from a number of inputs including both treated and untreated sewage, as well as agriculture from poorly managed soils, fertiliser, and animal waste. Currently, Natural England reports that 80% of our watery ‘protected sites’ are in ‘unfavourable condition’.
Our strongest environmental legislation comes from the Habitats Regulations (originally a European Directive). The government has consistently and very recently made assurances that they will not weaken these environmental protections. Under these rules, any new development in Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protected Areas were required to achieve nutrient neutrality (NN); i.e. to offset the impact of the new development with remedial measures elsewhere to avoid pollution getting worse.
What has changed?
The recent amendments proposed by Government under the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) Schedule 13 amendments would remove this requirement to offset pollution. They would also:
- tell local authorities to assume developments will have no nutrient impact, even when faced with evidence to the contrary;
- move the burden of paying for nutrient pollution from the polluters to the taxpayer;
- make long term, regressive legislative changes to environmental protections for short term gains and set a dangerous precedent for the erosion of important laws;
- throw away all the progress that has been made developing nutrient mitigation markets. [Developers, working with local authorities, with support from environmental organisations, landowners, and regulators have been working to find solutions to allow housing to progress without increasing the nutrient burden on water bodies.]
- What’s more, these changes are not necessary. Around 70% of the 100,000 houses that Government say will be ‘unblocked’ with their amendment have already been signed off and are ready to start building.
- These highly significant proposals have been rushed through at the very last minute, preventing meaningful parliamentary scrutiny. 26 pages of dense amendments were tabled with no consultation, 5 working days before debate in the House of Lords.
The response of the market and the sectors affected by the amendments tell a story. Development company stock prices rose sharply the day they were tabled and the vocal support for them all comes from the housing sector. There is widespread anger across the environment sector with the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) criticising the move. We can clearly see who will be profiting from the changes. Leading environmental groups including The Rivers Trust coordinated a delegation to meet with Secretaries of State, Michael Gove and Therese Coffey, and have set out their key concerns in this letter.
Contact your MP about this
The LURB Amendments will start report stage debates in the House of Lords this week. We are working closely with Peers who are dismayed by the undemocratic process and anti-democratic amendments, in the hope that we can stop these amendments and put in place sensible solutions that deliver the houses we need without compromising our environment. If you feel as strongly as us about them, please write to your MP, and feel free to use this template letter as the basis for your text.
An update from The Rivers Trust CEO, Mark Lloyd
Our Mark has been in engaged in talks this week regarding the proposed tearing up of nutrient neutrality regulations that have worried and frustrated the environmental sector.
Filming next to the Thames, Mark explains what’s been happening: