Proposed changes to nutrient neutrality will weaken environmental protections

THE OFFICE for Environmental Protection Chair, Dame Glenys Stacey, has written to the Secretaries of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to set out its advice following proposed changes to the law with regards to developments, water quality and protected wildlife sites.

Proposed changes to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in law and amount to a regression, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) is warning.

The letter states that “The proposed changes would demonstrably reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in existing environmental law. They are a regression. Yet the Government has not adequately explained how, alongside such weakening of environmental law, new policy measures will ensure it still meets its objectives for water quality and protected site condition.”

The OEP says that it recognises the need for housing and infrastructure and acknowledges that practical challenges have arisen in certain catchments for progressing development while ensuring that new housing does not exacerbate nutrient pollution.

However, the OEP says that nutrient pollution is a significant problem that requires urgent action. The letter asserts that many of England’s most important protected wildlife sites are in a “parlous state”, with their condition well below where it needs to be. The letter says that “this is often due to nutrient pollution, and development can be a significant contributor to this.”

The OEP calls for transparency over the impacts of the changes on environmental protections in law. The Environment Act requires Ministers to set out to Parliament where a proposed change in the law reduces environmental protection.

The letter continues “The proposed amendments include making changes to the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 that would permit certain environmentally damaging activity to proceed without ‘appropriate assessment’ of certain nutrient impacts, thus risking substantial harm to protected wildlife sites. Planning authorities would also be required to disregard negative findings concerning such nutrient pollution in any appropriate assessments, and disregard representations from Natural England or others.

“The proposed amendments would therefore remove legal controls on the addition of nutrient loads to sites that already suffer from these impacts. Legal certainty is replaced with policy interventions announced alongside the Bill amendments. These interventions do not unequivocally secure, for the long-term, the same level of environmental outcome as legal obligations in the Regulations do.

“They also introduce uncertainty and the risk of unintended consequences. It is unclear how such measures take account of the polluter pays and precautionary principles. These are internationally recognised principles which underpin the Regulations, and which are reflected in the Government’s Environmental Principles Policy Statement.

The OEP is calling on ministers to make a statement to confirm that they are no longer able to say that the Bill would not reduce the level of environmental protection provided for by any existing environmental law, but that the Government nevertheless wishes Parliament to proceed.

Read Dame Glenys Stacey’s letter here

SINCE publishing this article, the Environment Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has responded to Dame Glenys Stacey. Coffey’s letter says that she does not accept that amendments in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill “will lead to regression in environmental outcomes. It is the government’s judgement that it will not.” She says that she believes that “The reform package will in fact improve the condition of these Habitats Sites.”

Read the Environment Secretary’s response to Dame Glenys Stacey here


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