Helm: “We need a catchment system approach” to nutrient loading

Extracts from an article by Professor Sir Dieter Helm on his website

“THERE appears to be consensus on two things: that something has to be done about the state of our rivers; and that more housing is needed. That is where the consensus ends.”

On his website, Professor Sir Dieter Helm writes that “The EU rules were pretty clear: you should not build houses in environmentally sensitive areas where the nutrient pollution is going to go up. Hence the collision between the EU requirements we inherited, and the ambitions of the housebuilders. These are very attractive locations for housebuilders – they can extract higher prices for areas that are nice to live in, and environmentally sensitive areas tend to be nice.”

Helm says that Michael Gove and Thérèse Coffey have “patched together a mitigation package of new state spending and a very ambiguous position on how much mitigation builders will pay for.”

While Helm is critical of the government position, he says that NGOs should think more carefully about where they target their criticism. “It is easy for the NGOs to criticise the government. But they might like to reflect that Labour’s position is, if anything, more pro-builders and even less pro-environment. Labour wants to build on the green belt, radically change the planning regime and has been remarkably silent about what it would actually do about the sewage and the water companies.”

Watch our interview with Professor Sir Dieter Helm – NGOs have been too hard on government over nutrient neutrality

Helm calls the proposed amendment to the Levelling Up Bill a short-term fix.

He says that “What is needed is a long-term solution to both nutrients and to housebuilding. In a small and crowded island, it is obvious that new houses are going to produce more sewage and that this will have to go somewhere. The missing bit is spatial planning: planning to put houses in the right places which take account of nutrients and a host of other dimensions of natural capital. Treating each dimension as a silo and bottom-up is going to produce bad outcomes. An example is the net biodiversity gain. This is not net environmental gain as originally proposed, and like the nutrient issue, it is being treated bottom-up on a case-by-case basis.”

Helm says that instead we need a whole catchment system-based approach. “Instead of OFWAT regulating water, the Environment Agency (EA) doing flood defence, local government and planning authorities doing houses, and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) subsidising the farmers, the catchment approach could get rid of a lot of bureaucracy.

“A catchment system regulator would be charged with coming up with catchment plans, based on core outputs, reinforcing the Environment Act 2021 and its statutory targets. This would cover floods, farming pollution, the water companies’ sewage treatment and abstraction activities, and housing. Out would go Ofwat as the system regulator. Out would go the EA from flood management, and instead it would concentrate on being an effective Environment Protection Agency (as is the norm in the EU and elsewhere), and the ELMs (environment land management schemes) public money for public goods principle could be shaped by the catchment considerations too.”

Helm points out that this could also cost a lot less and “it would make sure all contribute to the key outcomes, and it would put the nutrient neutrality into context. Mitigation would not be in a silo of case by case, but in a catchment context to best maximise the environmental benefits.”

Read the full article here

Watch our interview with Professor Sir Dieter Helm here

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