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How Water Neutrality and Nutrient Neutrality Pauses a Serious Risk to Development!

A staggering 11,000 homes per year are being halted from development owing to nutrient neutrality requirements enacted by Natural England, following the ruling by the European Court of Justice on a case that affects regulation 63 of the Conservation and Habitats Regulations.

water neutrality UK

Dry Meadow at Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve in the Arun Valley

The case law refers to Case C-323/17 People over wind and Sweetman (Sweetman II) and Case C-293/17 Coöperatie Mobilisation for the Environment and Vereniging Leefmilieu (often referred to as the Dutch Nitrogen cases). The rulings by the European Case of Justice on both cases have afforded more robust protection of the protected habitats, wetlands and species in the aquatic environment. Effectively the ruling requires that developments, plans and projects affecting sites where adverse impact is known and thus failing to meet its conservation objectives must not contribute further adverse impact on these environments.

In the SouthWest, the Sussex North Water Supply Zone supplies potable water from the groundwater abstraction of aquifers in the Arun Valley. Natural England is concerned that this abstraction may be adversely impacting the Arun Valley which is considered to be a Special Area of Conservation, Special Protection Area and a Ramsar site; therefore having very stringent environmental and conservation protections. Above is an image of a relatively dry Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve, when it flooded these meadows teem with ducks, geese and swans in winter. This reserve lies within the Arun Valley.

Over the last 3 years, we have witnessed an escalation in the interventions taken by Natural England to protect Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protected Areas, Special Areas of Conservation and RAMAR wetland sites. There has been a rapid expansion in the area affected by nutrient neutrality stretching from the Solent in the south past Somerset and into South Wales. The impact is such that planning authorities have now ceased granting planning permissions, pending resolution of this issue or individual developers being pushed to find solutions for themselves.

water neutrality

Nutrient neutrality has bared down heavily on the Solent for the past 3 years. Research by Savills indicates that the eight affected planning authorities have seen a significant decline in planning approvals, resulting in housing delivery falling by a staggering 63%, from a housing target of 6,200 homes per year down to 2,294 homes per year. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that consequential reduction in planning consent as the nutrient neutrality zone spreads will be exceptionally high. Figures from Savills indicate that the annual shortfall in housing delivery will be approximately 11,000 units per year throughout the affected 32 Local Planning Authorities.

Implications for Water Neutrality

Whilst Natural England has led with extending the nutrient neutrality catchment beyond the Solent in recent times. It is evident that there is a strong correlation between river pollution and dwindling ecological flows, particularly in water-stressed regions of the south, which tend to over-mine water supplying aquifers. The Environment Agency currently estimates that we are over-mining the aquifers by 700 litres per day to meet the current potable water demands. The EA states that these levels of water abstraction are unsustainable, as it needs to be replaced with alternatives and completely reversed between 2025 and 2050.

"The Environment Agency currently estimates that we are over mining the aquifers by 700 litres per day to meet the current potable water demands."

water neutrality

The water stress map from the Environment Agency above clearly highlights the correlation between water-stressed regions and areas that have nutrient neutrality requirements. The unsustainable high levels of groundwater abstractions result in low ecological flows that are leading to algae blooms, fish kills and the drying up of meadows, streams and rivers. This issue is also compounded by the variability of rainfall events owing to climate change leading to extended periods of dry weather or droughts.

Therefore, we anticipate that the expansion for the requirement for water neutrality requirements will follow hot on the tail of the nutrient neutrality requirement in the driest regions of the country. The water neutrality requirement is most likely to be applied in other sensitive areas, like the catchments for the chalk streams found mainly in the southeast of the United Kingdom. For any sites going into planning in the next couple of years developers, planners, architects and engineers are minded to consider water neutrality as a major constraint that needs to be addressed as early as possible in the project cycle, preferably at the master-planning stage.

At Water Offsets, we are proactively helping developers deliver water-neutral developments and unlocking the planning moratorium to facilitate the development of more homes, whilst protecting the environment.

Below are some examples of projects where we have successfully implemented our "Water Neutrality" strategies:

  • 5,600 strategic development site in the south of England.

  • 200 unit eco resort from previous Golf Course use.

  • Conversion of a commercial unit to a children's nursery.

  • A small Greenfield development achieving water neutrality whilst avoiding the requirement to water offset.

  • The list goes on...

If you have an affected site in the Stour Catchment or in Sussex, Horsham, Chichester, South Downs, Surrey or Crawley, we will be very much obliged to help.

Please contact us at or to book an exclusive appointment to discuss your scheme in detail, follow this link below:

And we will get you unstuck with water neutrality.

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