Government Makes Progress on Solent Nitrates Issue

Above: Suella pictured with DEFRA Minister Rebecca Pow

Defra and MHCLG officials have been working closely with Natural England, the Environmental Agency and Partnership for South Hampshire (PfSH) for many months to understand the nitrogen pollution problems in the Solent, the impacts on housing delivery and the options for enabling housing growth whilst avoiding harm to important protected sites. 

Local authorities have estimated approximately 4500 homes are stalled at least partly because of this issue. 

This is a problem that requires strategic interventions to resolve in the longer term (including to address agricultural pollution), but equally needs practical action in the short term to unblock current development that is stalled. 

The Government has made incredible progress on short term actions to help get development moving: 

  • A joint position statement between Environment Agency (EA) and Natural England (NE) was published in November 2019 to clarify respective roles in the nitrogen pollution issue.
  • NE recently published a revised ‘nutrient neutral’ method for developers to use to show how they have mitigated a scheme’s impacts on nitrogen pollution.
  • Defra and NE worked with MHCLG to develop an online tool for calculating nitrate neutrality, to make the whole process easier for developers.
  • EA and NE are assessing the latest evidence to understand if a review of water discharge permits for wastewater treatment works affecting the Solent and its harbours is necessary (these flows contribute to nitrogen pollution of the protected areas, though agriculture is a bigger source)

Furthermore, this week the Government is announcing funding for an important pilot project to trial a strategic solution. HMT have recently confirmed £3.9m funding for a nutrient trading pilot in the Solent that will test a new market-based approach for securing nature-based nitrate pollution mitigation solutions.  

This will enable developers in need of nitrogen mitigation solutions to connect via an online platform with land managers able to provide such solutions. For example, farmers who are willing to take some of their land out of intensive agricultural production and commit it to meadow, woodland or wetland for at least 80 years. 

The project will test the feasibility and costs of this approach and explore how multiple benefits for people and nature can be maximised (e.g. biodiversity enhancement, increased access to nature, flood risk reduction). This approach will bring together the relevant local actors - house builders and developers, local authorities, landowners - and statutory bodies (NE and EA). If successful, the Government will look to roll out the approach to other parts of England facing similar challenges. 

Defra is also in discussion with Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT) about potentially offering them a loan to support delivery of nature-based solutions to nitrate pollution in the Solent (HMT have provided cover for a loan of up to £5.7m). The aim of this loan would be to enable short term action to unlock the 4500 stalled homes by providing nitrate mitigation solutions for developers. The loan would enable HIWWT to purchase agricultural sites which would be re-wilded, creating nature-rich habitats. These projects would reduce nitrate run-off entering the Solent through the change of use and the design of the habitat and provide wider benefits. Developers would be able to purchase credits from HIWWT to demonstrate to local planning authorities that their development proposals are nutrient neutral. 

Commenting Suella Said:

“I am incredibly pleased to see that all the hard work, countless meetings and lobbying is finally paying off. It is great to see both Defra and the MHCLG working together to demarcate a clear pathway to mitigation. The innovative market-based approach and the foregrounding of biodiversity concerns have been perfectly synthesised to create a robust and all-encompassing strategy going forward. A framework that I know for a fact, will be welcome news to all the concerned residents I have been in consultation with. This is an incredible milestone on the road to recovery and I am looking forward to breaking the deadlock in the coming months.”