Agenda item

Nutrient Neutrality

The Head of Planning will be in attendance to provide an overview of the Panel’s new scrutiny topic of Nutrient Neutrality.


RECOMMENDATION: that the Panel determines what further information is required.


The Head of Planning explained that the basic concept of nutrient neutrality was to ensure that any land use or developments occurring around watercourses did not cause an increase in harmful nutrient levels.  In Middlesbrough this related to the impact of nutrients on the Teesmouth and Cleveland Coast Special Protection Area (SPA).


On 16 March 2022, Natural England added Middlesbrough to the list of 74 Local Authorities affected by nutrient neutrality, highlighting that immediate action and a new approach was needed.  Since legislation was already in place there was no transition period and the advice had to be adopted with immediate effect.


Natural England’s advice was that excessive levels of nitrogen impacted on the integrity of the SPA and some new developments should not be permitted unless nutrient neutrality was achieved.  Excessive nitrogen could lead to algal blooms which impacted on protected species and their habitats. 


Natural England had provided a calculator to help determine potential impacts.  Nutrient Neutrality was achieved by ensuring there was no more nitrogen as a result of development.  The amount of nitrogen from existing land use and proposed land use was measured and had to be mitigated.  It was noted that there was a greater impact on brownfield sites than on greenfield ones.


Natural England’s advice affected the whole of the River Tees catchment which encompassed 11 planning authorities, from Tees Estuary across to Cumbria.  However, only Middlesbrough, Stockton and Darlington were affected in their entirety.


There were three main sources of nitrogen: agriculture (from fertilisers), industry and people (through the waste water infrastructure network).  Work had shown that waste water from households and human activity accounted for potentially less than 1% of the total but this was what the advice was specifically targeting.  The biggest impacts were believed to be from agriculture, industry and the water authorities. 


As the Local Planning Authority, Middlesbrough Council made decisions on planning applications, prepared the Local Plan and took into account all land issues including impact on the environment.   The Council also had a role to act as a Competent Authority to protect European sites in line with Habitat Regulations, undertake assessment tests to check whether plans or proposals would cause harm, and agree any mitigation required to allow development to proceed.


Nutrient neutrality guidance affected all developments where there would be an increase in overnight stays, producing more nitrogen via the sewerage system.  Residential developments, hotels, and student accommodation were all included.  Commercial properties, schools, offices or home extensions were not, as the assumption was that people using those facilities already lived in the catchment area and already contributed to the wastewater system and should not be double counted.  Some other developments such as tourist attractions or hospitals might be out of scope depending on the area served.


Further guidance was awaited on mitigation measures which might include:


           Removal of land from agricultural use.

           Tree Planting.

           Reed beds/filtration.

           Engineered solutions.


Mitigation had to be provided within the catchment area and would likely lead to greener developments as more landscaping would be required.  In Middlesbrough, developments such as Stainsby and Newham Hall had the potential to incorporate water habitats.  The catchment area for providing mitigation was vast, however the Council intended to prioritise Middlesbrough in the first instance, then the Tees Valley and then the wider area.


As a result of Natural England’s guidance there was an immediate moratorium on approving new housing development and other affected schemes. Applications for 1532 dwellings, 274 bedrooms student accommodation, a 4 bedroom House of Multiple Occupation (HMO) and a 48 bed hotel were affected.   Schemes that had already been granted  planning permission were not affected.  Unfortunately one housing development in Middlesbrough that was likely to be approved was awaiting a Section 106 agreement when the moratorium came in.  The Council’s 5 year land supply was not affected as yet.  A small number of schemes could still progress because the proposed impact was less or equal to existing land use.  Those developments in scope would be subject to appropriate assessment.


Other implications for Middlesbrough included:


           Mitigation: current estimates using the current Natural England calculator were between £2,000 and £10,000 per dwelling.  For developments proposed at Newham Hall this could be additional £2-10 million and for Middlehaven          could be additional £1-5 million.  This would impact on capital receipts as Developers would want to pay less for sites.


            The figures provided had not been tested and therefore the level of            impact could be less or it could be higher. 


           Medium Term Financial Plan: whilst there would not be an immediate impact        on current housing schemes and build rates, the impact on delivery would be   felt in two to three years’ time and it was vital to resolve the issues now.


           Brownfield sites and regeneration of town centre: more mitigation would be           required for the same level of development as brownfield sites would be more      hampered than greenfield sites.  There was a lack of potential for on-site     mitigation and the viability of such sites could be impacted.  A number of   Local Authorities were worried because they did not want to develop       greenfield areas.


It was highlighted that Housing Developers wanted to build in Middlesbrough but on the greenfield sites.  The Council had to translate that strategy onto sites and how best to deliver them.  Brownfield sites had to be the preferred option in terms of meeting housing types, facilities, population needs but they still needed some kind of public resource to bring them forward.


Middlesbrough Council was working jointly with the other affected authorities in the Tees Catchment and had sought legal and other specialist advice.  The Council would also learn from others’ experiences – one example was the Solent area which had taken over two years to find a solution.  It would be important to develop a consistent approach across the Tees Valley and look at strategic mitigations to offset the impacts and take developments out of the nutrient neutrality scope. 


The Council had challenged the Natural England calculator and evidence and commissioned consultants to consider population impacts of new development.  The calculator had applied a formula of 2.4 persons per dwelling but a figure below that would drastically reduce the impact and therefore the mitigation figures.  First and foremost the Council wanted to concentrate on reducing the level of impact to make it easier to mitigate against.  In addition, the Council was trying to find ways of bringing brownfield sites forward and using its own land holdings and tree planting programmes to reduce nitrates.  Any solutions would be used to help regeneration schemes on brownfield sites first and then assist developers to find the mitigation on greenfield sites.


Following recent changes within government there was some uncertainty as to possible changes to national planning policy, legislation – with a new Regeneration and Levelling Up Bill and proposals to increase the statutory responsibilities of water companies to include taking nitrates out of the system by 2030.  There had been rumours that new investment zones could be introduced with reduced planning requirements, and that nutrient neutrality could be removed from those zones altogether.   However this was speculation and not fact.  Potentially the proposed Middlesbrough Development Corporation could be designated as an investment zone.


There was also some tension between planning legislation and environmental legislation.  The designated SPA was home to predominantly migratory birds.  The government could potentially look at that area and not afford the same weight to environmental protections there.  If some of that area was to be excluded from nutrient neutrality requirements, then the environmental legislation would need to be changed.


AGREED that the information provided was received and noted.