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Q&A with Clare Bartlett on nitrate neutrality

3 minute read

Sigma Strategic Land is in conversation today with Clare Bartlett, Planning Partner of Batcheller Monkhouse on the thorny issue of nitrate neutrality. Clare heads up the Planning Team in their Pulborough office in West Sussex.  

Clare is both a Chartered Town Planner and a Practitioner in the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (PIEMA) which forms a specialism in EIA co-ordination. With over 20 years experience in various planning consultancy roles including a London-based property consultancy, Clare joined Batcheller Monkhouse in 2016Clare is currently advising clients on the nitrates issue, particularly in the Solent region, although the problem is much more widespread in England and includes phosphates as well.   

1. Clare, thank you very much for joining us today to talk about the nitrates (and phosphates) neutrality issue which is creating significant problems for housing delivery in England. The scale of the problem is not truly understood but is thought to be affecting some 30,000 potential new homes.  In terms of where we live on the south coast, the issue around the Solent is certainly stifling housing development from coming forward. What is your understanding of the problem at the moment? 

Nitrate pollution has been a problem for many years in the Solent which Natural England cites as being one of the UK’s most important water environments for wildlife. Nitrates, and to a lesser extent phosphates, discharged into the Solent have caused eutrophication which in turn causes algae to form, starving water and sediments of oxygen, killing off aquatic species and forming a barrier to feeding birds. Nitrates comes from a number of sources, mainly agriculture and wastewater treatment discharges but also from soil disturbed by construction. Natural England’s decision in 2019 to require all new developments involving overnight stays to be nitrate neutral had a significant impact on the housebuilding industry, despite it reportedly being responsible for just a small proportion of the nitrates generated.  

Demonstrating nitrate neutrality involves calculating the nitrogen load for a proposed development and offsetting this in some way.  

Some planning authorities now have offsetting schemes in place which have enabled developments to go ahead, but the time it has taken to reach an agreement on these has led to significant delays in the delivery of much needed housing. Other planning authorities are only just starting to think about such schemes, meanwhile, planning applications cannot be determined and the gulf between housing need and delivery continues to widen. Not ideal when the country faces a housing crisis. 

2. To what extent do you think the nitrates issue lies at the door of housebuilding, or are there other areas such as farming practices that need to equally review their methods and approaches in order to prevent eutrophication coming from excess nitrates? 

The problem is not of the industry’s making and I can understand the frustration that developers are being forced to pay to solve a problem they have not caused. Nitrates have historically been quite heavily used in agriculture, but water authorities do also bear some responsibility. Failings at sewage treatment sites in the region have led to the pollution of rivers and beaches in southern England for which Southern Water was heavily fined recently. A further problem is caused by Southern Water’s business plan having only just been finalised for the next five years just as the nitrate problem has come to the fore, so there is no immediate ability for them to ask for more cash just as it is really needed.  

In terms of the farming industry, regulation has led to significant reductions in nitrate usage over the last 30 years or so as a result of farmers adopting good practices. Much of the current problem attributed to agricultural stems from historical farming practices the effects of which are only just coming to the surface.  

3. What have your experiences briefly been of this issue?  

The agricultural industry in this country is well used to adapting to ever more stringent regulation and certainly its help will be essential if the region is to meet its housing targets. I know the NFU is concerned about the sustainability of taking land permanently out of farming production and would rather the focus be on options that work alongside productive farming. There are some great examples of nitrate reduction initiatives that farmers have entered into such as rewilding schemes and the creation of new habitats. 1 hectare of wetland can remove around 1000kg of nitrogen per year which would provide sufficient mitigation for around 5000 houses so that is quite significant. 

DEFRA has also recently spent £3.9m on setting up an online nitrate credit platform made possible by turning a dairy farm in Havant into a nature reserve and significantly reducing the amount of nitrates leaking into the sea through fertiliser and cow waste. This has enabled housing applications to be approved. 

4. Sigma Strategic Land (SSL) is trying to understand the possible solutions to help unlock housing development. Is there a way forward in your opinion? Are certain Authorities or regions more successful than others?  

Currently, there seems to be some reluctance from planning authorities to look to the private sector for solutions which is a frustration.  The private sector can be much quicker and innovative to come up with solutions that work perfectly well so this is something I hope will change. I wouldn’t say this attitude is specific to a particular authority. 

There are still a number of solutions that developers can consider. If your site is not large enough to accommodate an on-site offsetting scheme, then another option would be to acquire agricultural land within the catchment area containing the development site and changing the land use in perpetuity, perhaps to woodland or wetland. Some Councils in the region have already done this and require developers to make a financial contribution towards their schemes. Warblington Farm is one such example in the Havant Borough and a credits scheme has been devised which developers pay into to offset nitrates from new development.  

For those areas that don’t yet have such schemes, such as the Chichester District, an appropriately worded Section 106 agreement may provide a Council with the confidence to support a private off-setting scheme. Such an agreement would need to guarantee the delivery of the scheme and its ongoing maintenance in perpetuity.  

Other options would be to work with a willing local farmer on an on-farm solution that works alongside productive farming to provide the necessary nitrate credits to allow your development to proceed.  

For developers with existing properties in a catchment area, such as housing associations and care home providers, water reduction measures can be retrofitted on existing properties to reduce the amount of water, and therefore nitrates, going from houses into the sewage system. This could earn nitrate credits for a new development. 


5. The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust has previously acquired Little Duxmore Farm to demonstrate proof of the concept of offsetting and now has the aim of rolling it out more widely. There are many frustrations with this approach including a lack of understanding and transparency about how many nitrate credits can be released from any given land parcel, how many planning permissions can be issued as a result and the length of time this process takes to complete. Do you have any comments about this and how do you see the roll-out programme taking place at scale?  

More work on this is needed as it does introduce another uncertainty into the planning process. Obtaining planning permission can take a long time so developers need to know that sufficient nitrate credits will exist to serve their development, particularly for the small to medium sites where an on-site offsetting scheme may not be an option.  

It would be great if we can get to a position whereby Councils can guarantee that enough nitrate credits exist to serve all housing planned for an area within the timeframe of a Local Plan. I can see this becoming an intrinsic part of the Local Plan review process, but this is a longer term solution and won’t solve the immediate uncertainties that exist so some imaginative thinking is needed. 

6. Given that you are a qualified practitioner in preparing Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), how is nitrate and phosphate neutrality being dealt with through this process and is it particularly effective at capturing the root of the problem and managing its effects? 

Natural England requires all EIA development (not just housing) in the Solent region to calculate a nutrient budget and achieve nutrient neutrality so mixed use and commercial developers can find themselves having to consider the impact their schemes will have. Some schemes which had outline consent granted before the issue emerged as critical may now find themselves needing to consider it at the reserved matters stage. 

With EIA being a process it can be a helpful way to show the effectiveness of each mitigation measure being proposed, but it also allows for a greater degree of scrutiny. Non-EIA developments in areas where Councils have offsetting schemes in place can rely on those to demonstrate neutrality, but where an EIA is required the onus falls on the developer to show that those measures will work. A robustly written Environmental Statement continues to be ever so important.  

7. Sigma Strategic Land shares concerns along with other SME housebuilders and the wider development industry about nitrate neutrality stalling decision-making for Local Planning Authorities (LPAs). This can have the effect of making it harder for them to meet their housing targets. Do you think there should be special dispensation afforded to LPAs, or should there be other solutions such as devolving additional targets to neighbouring Authorities unaffected by the nitrate (and/or phosphate) issue in order to meet the overall national need?  

There have been calls for local authorities to press the government to grant them extensions to meet their housing delivery targets. The current period of reduced housing delivery coincides with a rise to the Housing Delivery Test pass rate so some areas will find themselves exposed to speculative developments if the extensions are not granted.  

Although the process of identifying suitable mitigation strategies has and is taking some time, the process of increasing the housing targets of those neighbouring authorities unaffected by the nitrates issue and then agreeing on additional site allocations would I am sure take even longer.  

For the time being therefore I think the circumstances of each site will need to be considered when devising a suitable mitigation strategy and deciding the timescales for bringing a site forward for development. Innovative thinking has become a critical skill for planners!


8. What services can Batcheller Monkhouse provide to help with this issue and thereby unlock the planning potential of a site? 

Batcheller Monkhouse represents many landowners across the region so we are ideally positioned to connect developers with farmers and landowners who are interested in working on suitable mitigation projects. This is something we are actively working on so I would encourage developers to get in touch with us to see how we can help. 

9. Many in the development industry appear to be saying that only package treatment works will be successful in eliminating nitrates most efficiently. Whilst land offsetting is the commonly adopted approach, it appears to be hard work to transact, results in long delays with the issuing of planning permissions and causes uncertainty in the process. How do you see the nitrates and phosphates issue being resolved in the long run (if at all)?  

Package treatment plants are an option but from what I have read the technology is not yet at a stage where it could remove enough nitrates for development sites in sensitive areas. 

Going forward I think it will take a combination of measures to get on top of the problem. Alongside greater investment by water authorities and changing agricultural practices, housebuilders should be considering greater use of grey water recycling, water reduction measures and pre-treatment plants. Also, discussions should be had with Councils about suitably worded Section 106 agreements to enable private offsetting schemes to be brought forward where appropriate. In the longer term, we also have the Infrastructure Levy which was proposed in the Government’s White Paper recently which could help to raise funds, and the Government’s nitrate trading platform which is being trialled in Havant but could be rolled out further if successful. 

The Government has made housebuilding a priority so with its backing we should feel encouraged that the problem is being addressed. Whilst Councils look to longer term strategic measures there is much the industry can do to bring forward sites in the shorter term with innovative and collaborative thinking.   

Thank you Clare for a really interesting and thought-provoking discussion. Sigma Strategic Land really appreciates your time and we hope that readers continue contributing to the discussion with their own thoughts and experiences of this extremely difficult issue at the moment.  

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