At the point of writing this week's blog, the latest round of government housing announcements pertains to removing environmental protections on the nutrient neutrality rules previously installed by Brussels. These rules were initially introduced to guarantee that property and commercial development schemes wouldn't cause unnecessary damage to our waterways via runoff from our nation's building sites. Given the situation we are now facing with the housing development backlog, it's been deemed time for a rethink. In this week's blog, we look at all sides of the argument, starting with some science for those readers who may still be thinking Nutrient Neutrality is the latest celebrity-endorsed protein drink to give them the benefit of our research.

Nutrient neutrality, in the context of environmental protection, refers to maintaining a balance between nutrient inputs and outputs in ecosystems, particularly concerning nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients are essential for plant growth, but excessive amounts can lead to water pollution, algal blooms, and degraded aquatic ecosystems. Nutrient neutrality aims to prevent nutrient imbalances by limiting the release of these elements into the environment and offsetting any excess through sustainable practices.

To safeguard against nutrient pollution, various laws and regulations have been established worldwide. In the United States, for instance, the Clean Water Act and its amendments limit nutrient discharges into water bodies. The European Union has directives like the Water Framework Directive and the Nitrates Directive that address nutrient pollution in member states. These laws typically limit nutrient concentrations in water bodies, require permits for discharges, and encourage practices like precision agriculture and wastewater treatment to minimize nutrient runoff.

Such laws are necessary to preserve water quality, aquatic biodiversity, and human health. Excessive nutrients can lead to "dead zones" in water bodies where oxygen levels are dangerously low, negatively impacting fish and other aquatic life. Nutrient neutrality laws play a pivotal role in maintaining ecological balance, promoting sustainable land use, and safeguarding the future of our ecosystems.

This all seems like solid science, so what's the issue? The government believes that changing these rules would release more than 100,000 new homes by 2030 and, in turn, bring a sizable boost to the UK economy. The case for the counterargument is best laid out in a piece in today's Guardian where a consortium of developers canvassed stated the rules that Natural England is interpreting are so strict that up to "120,000 new homes are on hold, and argue farmland is a far bigger contributor to pollution" This is a fair argument to make, given farming is responsible for between 50 and 60 per cent of nitrate pollution and around 40 per cent of river pollution in general in the UK. Still, it won't stand up in the court of public opinion. Two wrongs don't make a clean river, so we must look at the practical steps developers can take.

The article mentioned above also touched on one initial solution posed in 2022, where the government launched a credit scheme that allowed developers to purchase some leeway with the rules, and that pot of money was aggregated into a pool of capital that could be used for buffer zones and watercourses, defence mechanisms to protect the waterways around the site, but fell into criticism quite quickly when it was deemed to impede on farmland, just moving the problem into a different sector.

The reaction to this potential policy has been relatively adverse across the board; it's a given environmentalists would be extremely worried, but industry magazine The Intermediary canvassed a variety of financial services brokers with direct links to clients & customers operating in this sector who may benefit from these changes. The responses were surprisingly muted, with concern over the degradation of the waterways as an extreme approach to an incredibly multi-faceted problem that could be approached very differently.

So, what's the answer, and where do we sit with this issue? We are undoubtedly pro-change, and the interests of our developer clients, and any removal of red tape is initially welcomed - but this must come in a balanced way. We don't endorse the sweeping wholesale removal of protections that may negatively impact the nation's waterways; deep down, that's probably the opinion of most. We want the best of both worlds if we can get it. Still, we see the urgent need for a better, more harmonious relationship between the nation's property developers and Natural England & their Welsh counterparties to reduce decision delays and provide quicker clarity, especially for smaller developers with greater risk exposure to delays.

We would like to see the government develop more innovative solutions to these problems; as much as binary choices in debates are the normality in popular discourse, we can't be in a situation where we must choose between healthy rivers and homes.

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