Avoiding Delays in Planning: the need to achieve ‘Nutrient Neutrality’

Avoiding Delays in Planning: the need to achieve ‘Nutrient Neutrality’

Achieving nutrient neutrality for development close to internationally designated sites is an emerging issue for development, and one that is resulting in delays in planning. This article explores how the problem can be addressed through appropriate assessment and mitigation.


Following judgements by the Dutch courts (referred to as the Dutch Nitrogen cases C-293/17 and C-294/17[1]), Natural England and Natural Resources Wales are now adopting a more rigorous approach when it comes to assessing the effects of changes in water quality on Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Ramsar sites (wetlands of international importance). This is particularly relevant for new developments that may result in increased nutrient enrichment of waterbodies, such as rivers and estuaries as well as the marine environment.

Nutrient Enrichment and Development

Any new development that will result in, for example, increased sewage (including treated sewage) and surface water runoff that may enter a river, estuary or marine area, has the potential to result in increased Nitrogen and Phosphorus levels within the receiving environment. If the receiving environment is designated a SAC, SPA or Ramsar, there is a legal requirement to prevent the deterioration of these sites, including as a result of nutrient enrichment. Furthermore, the potential effects of these types of discharge are likely to trigger the requirement for an ‘appropriate assessment’ under the Conservation of Habitats and Species (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. Through the assessment process it will be necessary to demonstrate that there will not be an adverse effect on the integrity of a SAC, SPA or Ramsar.

Current (elevated) levels of Nitrogen and Phosphorus have been shown to be having significant effects on many of the UK’s SACs, SPAs and Ramsar sites. For example, the Solent is considered to be particularly vulnerable to nutrient enrichment, and as a result Natural England published guidance[2] on achieving nutrient neutrality for new development in this area in 2020.

Whilst the requirement to achieve nutrient neutrality in the Solent area has received a lot of publicity because of the impact that this is having on new development, concern about the impact of nutrient enrichment has resulted in similar approaches being adopted elsewhere. For example, development within the River Wye SAC catchment and development within the catchment for Poole Harbour SPA and Ramsar site is now required to demonstrate nutrient neutrality.

Achieving Nutrient Neutrality

To avoid unnecessary delays in the determination of planning applications, developers and their water quality technical specialists need to work with ecologists in the following ways:

  • To identify SAC, SPA or Ramsar sites that might be affected by additional nutrient inputs. A competent ecologist can advise on potential impact pathways as well as providing advice on the sensitivity of ecological features to nutrient enrichment;
  • To quantify the nutrient inputs that might arise as a result of the development, including the consideration of options to reduce inputs at source; and
  • To identify measures to allow nutrient neutrality to be achieved, but also to consider challenges to a nutrient neutrality policy where this is justified.

The results of this work are likely to be required to inform a Habitats Regulations Assessments (HRA) in situations where nutrient enrichment has the potential to affect the integrity of a SAC, SPA or Ramsar site. It is important that an ecologist is involved as early as possible during a project life cycle so that any necessary mitigation requirements can be identified early on and incorporated into the scheme design.

How we can help

BSG Ecology has extensive experience in undertaking HRAs for a wide range of developments including recreational projects, quarries, infrastructure and housing developments. If you would like advice in relation to a development proposal that will be required to achieve nutrient neutrality, or where HRA is likely to be required, please contact one of our offices.


[1] https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:62017CA0293&from=DE

[2] https://www.push.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Advice-on-Achieving-Nutrient-Neutrality-for-New-Deveopment-in-the-Solent-Region-March-2020.pdf

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