Nutrient Neutrality: A Farce In Several Parts

Without wishing to alienate a part of the audience which I’ve been reliably informed represents the world’s fourth most popular participation sport, I’m just going to put it out there: I don’t enjoy fishing. In the interest of balance, I can share that my business partner, Ian, adores fishing and frequently journeys north of the border in search of the (highly) elusive salmon. Given that he nearly always fails to catch any, I suspect he’s not a poster child for the sport, but he assures me that not catching fish is still an enjoyable pastime. He also says it’s called fishing, not catching. No, I’m not convinced either, but there’s no reasoning with the man. And over the years, I learned to tune out the litany of excuses I get in response to that most innocuous of questions, ‘How many fish did you catch?’.

When this appeared to be perceived as a passive-aggressive line of questioning, I toned things down a little, first to ‘Did you catch a fish?’, then to ‘Did you see a fish’, and finally to ‘Was the weather nice?’. So, when Ian urged me to watch a programme about rivers hosted by the venerable Paul Whitehouse, of ‘Gone Fishing’ fame (Paul Whitehouse: Our Troubled Rivers (BBC iPlayer), I thought it was just another weak attempt to convince me that fishing should be on my hobby list. Turns out it wasn’t. In fact, it wasn’t a programme about fishing at all, at least not directly. But it is a programme that I’d recommend you watch, and if you’ve not yet seen it, I defy you to do so without feeling a tad angry and probably a little bemused. You have been warned.

Before I let you have a small glimpse behind the curtain of Mr Whitehouse’s ire-inspiring documentary, let me bring you up to speed on what’s been happening in the exciting world of nutrients (hold onto your seats). Nutrients are generally good for humans but not so good for the country’s waterways since they cause algae to bloom, to the detriment of other aquatic life. Nutrients come in the form of phosphates and nitrates and are most commonly found in sewage, whether that’s waste from our homes or animal waste from agriculture. Following a law passed in the EU, Natural England decided that 74 local authorities with environmentally sensitive areas would need to ensure that any new development was ‘nutrient-neutral’ before planning was granted. In other words, developers would have to take measures to offset the nutrient impact of any developments, and local planning authorities would be required to assess whether a full offset had been achieved. Given that Natural England landed this requirement without warning, the local authorities had no time to create offsetting schemes to which developers could subscribe. More recently, Natural England’s own nutrient neutrality offsetting programme has been expanded; however, it’s been widely reported that many developers still have no access to offsetting schemes in their area. And so we are left with thousands of planning applications either being suspended or rejected and around 150,000 new homes that can’t currently be built.

Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that at least there’s an upside to all this. While the nutrient neutrality issue has destroyed local businesses, prevented people from getting on the housing ladder, and compounded the housing crisis, surely we have at least managed to avert an environmental crisis in our waterways. Well, I hate to break it to you, but the answer would appear to be ‘er…not really’. Let’s look at some figures. It’s estimated that the entire housing stock of this country, some 27 million homes, contributes less than 5% of the nutrients in our waterways. So, if you had a calculator handy, you could work out the impact of creating an additional 150,000 new homes (make sure you have one that displays to four decimal places).

Except it’s not quite that straightforward because, presumably, the people who’ll go and live in these new homes are already creating sewage in the time-honoured way; they’re just doing it in a different location. And while I accept that new development creates additional nitrate impact from construction site run-off, I would still bet that the net nutrient impact of these new homes being built is probably much less than the rather small number currently displayed on your calculator.

So, if all residential homes account for just 5% of nutrients, where does the other 95% come from? There are two main culprits. The first is agriculture. When growing crops, farmers fertilise their fields using nitrates and phosphates. Muck-spreading is routinely used to help crops grow, and on the face of it, this is a great idea. Using an unwanted by-product of animal husbandry to assist arable farming is surely a virtuous circle. But there’s a problem; when it rains, these nutrients are washed off the fields and into our water courses, eventually ending up in our rivers. The situation is made worse because run-off water from our fields doesn’t get treated before it ends up in the river – it just goes straight in, undiluted. Some larger developers have come up with their own nutrient-offsetting proposals. ‘Farmland Offsetting’ has been adopted, where developers pay farmers to rewild part of their land, which prevents future farming. This reduction in nutrient pollution from the rewilded farmland creates the offset needed to permit their developments. Ultimately, however, property developers are to creating nutrient offsetting schemes as fish are to riding bicycles. In my opinion, any planning system that requires SME property developers to devise their own environmental offsetting schemes in order to survive is probably not the world’s greatest planning system.

Now, if you’re still awake following my riveting description of the nutrient issues, you may have spotted that new homes have an inherent advantage over agriculture. And that’s because, unlike agriculture, sewage from our homes gets connected to a system operated by our regional water companies who treat it before releasing it back into the wild. Which, as a theory, is bang on and well done if you spotted it. But unfortunately, that’s where we run into one of the other major contributors to the problem, namely the dire state of our water treatment infrastructure and the way it’s operated and policed. When the water companies were privatised, their focus quite understandably shifted to making a profit.

One assumes that, were they to spend a pound on improving their water treatment facilities, the impact of this investment on their profitability would be ‘minus one pound’. If so, your guess is as good as mine as to what appetite there’s been within the regional water companies for such projects since they were privatised. Today, we have an infrastructure that can’t cope with the volume of wastewater that’s coming at it with predictable results. In this country, rainwater is allowed to be mixed with sewage before it gets treated. But in periods of heavy rainfall, the system can’t cope, so water companies are allowed to operate an overflow system, whereby the excess wastewater gets dumped into rivers untreated. And, of course, this wastewater includes raw sewage. Worse still, water companies stand accused of gaming the system, allowing far more sewage to be dumped into our rivers than could ever be justified by heavy rainfall. It was this issue in particular that was highlighted in Paul Whitehouse’s documentary, and I have to say it makes for sober viewing. You’re left asking the question, ‘How can this be allowed to happen, and what is the government doing about it?’

And if you’re a housebuilder, developer or prospective homebuyer in a nutrient-affected area, or you work in the construction sector or rely on a vibrant local economy, you might also be asking the question, ‘Why are politicians appearing to ignore the problems that cause 99% of the issue and are instead focusing on the 1% where their solution means destroying businesses, local economies and people’s dreams of getting on the housing ladder?’. Because if you thought four years was a long time in politics, it’s an even longer time if you’re a developer or construction business who can’t build anything. Or a potential homeowner looking to get on the housing ladder when there are no affordable houses. Of course, if you happen to be one of the fish that’s been saved due to the nutrient neutrality initiative, you’re one of the winners in all this. But for everyone else, it’s not been such a great trip. Why it should take four years for the government to come up with a solution is another great question, but let’s not dwell on it. It seemed at last that common sense had prevailed. Someone in Whitehall had worked out that because new homes can only create nutrients, the only logical solution was to devise a set of offsetting measures that would appease the environmentalists while allowing Natural England’s diktat to be circumvented. In theory, it’s a win-win since houses could start being built again in all but the most environmentally sensitive areas, plus there would be new levies and funding to offset the nutrient impact overall. And as soon as you restart construction, you bring wealth to those local economies, first through the construction teams that will build the homes and then through the 300,000-plus people who will end up living in them.

Unfortunately, common sense and practical solutions aren’t usually front of mind when there’s an opportunity to make political capital. The House of Lords, where the government lacks a majority, allowed Labour to defeat the government, so they blocked the bill. If you, like me, thought that the job description for politicians of all persuasions was to devise practical solutions to complex problems to make this country a better place to live in, then I suspect we shall be accused of extreme naivety. Surely we understood that politicians can only make the country a better place after they’ve made as much political capital out of a situation as possible? And, of course, the Lords’ position is virtually unassailable. By being seen to champion the environment, they’ve played an ace. Fish all over the country will have taken to their bikes in celebration as they race through the algal bloom. I’m all for politicians finding alternative solutions to tricky problems, but that’s not what has happened here. On hearing the Lords’ news, the government vowed to table a bill via the King’s Speech to force the issue through, but rumour has it they have since backtracked on this. In short, it looks like we’re back where we started.

The problem with the environment is that humans are generally bad for it. Whatever we do, the environment suffers. Drive a car or travel by plane, then you harm the environment. Buy an electric car, you still harm the environment. And it’s the same if you build a house. It’s probably the same if you ate a box of Smarties, but I haven’t checked. So, we have two very obvious options. Either we stop driving cars, flying planes, building houses, and eating Smarties. Or we don’t. But if we don’t, we should probably think of ways to reduce the environmental impact of doing those things AND offset the damage they inevitably cause. That’s broadly what the government was trying to do with their latest nutrient neutrality proposal.

Of course, some people believe that we shouldn’t create any environmental damage to offset in the first place. Many environmental groups would have us take a much more draconian approach to protecting the planet, and we rely on these groups to ensure greater awareness of the impact that our actions and laws have on the environment. Others take a more moderate and maybe even opposing view. It’s these combined views that allow politicians to come up with the most workable and acceptable compromise.

Now, I’m strictly apolitical when it comes to property development. I tend to take what I like to think of as a common-sense view. The housebuilding nutrient issue is an environmental concern that accounts for a tiny proportion of a much bigger problem. And because it’s impossible to build new homes without creating nutrients, there must be a compromise somewhere along the line; otherwise, we’ll have no new homes for people to live in. The people we employ to solve this problem are our politicians, and so far, they’ve not covered themselves in glory. Given the breadth of talent in our corridors of power, it’s pretty shameful that it’s taken them four years to get precisely nowhere. Nor does the Opposition putting political point-scoring ahead of solving what is a significant issue for many of the electorate reflect any better on them.

Ironically, perhaps an all-party fishing trip could be the answer. If our MPs and policymakers all stood wader-to-wader, flexing their undoubted intellectual nous while (probably) not flexing their fishing rods, they could, between them, come up with a solution that, while not making everyone happy, would at least allow them to please most of the people, most of the time. Which, at the end of the day, is not only the best that can be achieved; it’s also what we pay them for.

Tight lines!