Why we need nature-based solutions for nutrient neutrality

By Rob Hindle, Executive Director, Rural Solutions

IT’S deeply disappointing that government is considering reversing its nature-based solutions led approach to achieving nutrient neutrality in new development in affected catchments. This risks undermining a powerful emerging market in privately financed nature-based solutions.

While nutrient neutrality does add a significant constraint in the development process, the stance taken to date by government and Natural England has been positive. Even if our Habitat Regulations responsibilities hadn’t legally required action, surely very few people would be happy to allow the current levels of nutrient pollution continue in our streams, rivers and estuaries.

The moratorium on new development without mitigation, introduced by Natural England and supported by government, whilst far from perfect, is beginning to prove effective.

Both parties should be applauded for recognising a major environmental problem and for understanding that one way to generate swift action – and bring private finance to bear – was to use the stop/go opportunity presented by the planning system.

The control exerted by the planning system can be absolute. If an applicant has no proven method to avoid nutrient loading in the relevant catchment, then no planning permission. No planning permission, no development.

The profit imperative associated with most development means that solutions need to be found – and as we can see from the emerging and increasingly developed market for nature based solutions associated with nutrient neutrality – it has been. There are increasing numbers of deals being done between land managers and developers to deliver the necessary reduction in nutrient loading within catchments.

An open letter written by Greenshank Environmental and Green Agri Land Limited, and supported by a number or organisations including the National Trust, states that mitigation schemes are available or in place for 72,000 homes across ten catchments.

It is ironic that just as the market has proved its ability to react and deliver effective and affordable nature based solutions – and just as mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain is launched in the English planning system – that the government is sending mixed signals around the value that it places on the environment. We need government to step up and make the choices needed to deliver against its own legally binding commitment to environmental targets and nature recovery.

It’s easy to blame the house building lobby for this vacillation but I don’t think that is entirely fair.

In many ways the willingness of the house building industry to look for solutions has been a contributor to the creation and early testing of a regulatory driven market for nature based solutions.

The root causes of the nutrient-based pollution problem don’t lie with the development sector but with a much broader set of discharges from industry, from farmland and the continued failure of privately owned water companies to invest in their infrastructure.

These factors, compounded by the failure of successive governments to enforce the ‘polluter pays’ principle, typified by the ongoing reliance on ‘codes of good practice’ rather than readily enforceable regulation, have created the situation we now face.

It should be recognised that the approach chosen ‘bites’ not on the main polluters, but on those seeking to add nutrient loading to catchments already overloaded due to the actions, and inaction, of others. (And to do so in accordance with other parts of public policy.)

Hardly surprising that the house building industry is pushing back at having to bear the cost of this inaction, especially whilst the primary pollution continues unabated. Even if, in a residual land based valuation model, it is ultimately the land provider, not the house building company or the home buyer, who pays the bill.

Despite the imperfections – and perhaps some inequity associated with the planning-based approach adopted – we need the government to hold its nerve, and not to go down the route of ex ante promissory solutions based on future investment it cannot control that may or may not come to pass.

We need them to do this not only because there is an urgent imperative to address nutrient pollution of our streams, rivers and estuaries; not only because there are means to do so through nature based solutions – but also because a decision to move away from bespoke and specific nature based solutions in favour of downstream promises of future action risks fundamentally undermining the trust of private investors and land managers in the whole idea of nature based solutions.


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