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HBF report challenges pollution calculations

Natural England is concerned about excessive housing development contributing to algae in watercourses

House-builders are lobbying local authorities to amend their nutrient calculators to ensure their projections accurately reflect local household sizes.

Housing development has been put on hold across much of England in the wake of a European Court of Justice ruling in the Netherlands. This ruling, known as Dutch N, prompted Natural England to revise its guidance to local authorities, advising them to assess all applications for housing development for nutrient-related pollution threats.

New housing schemes across large parts of 74 local authorities with estuaries and freshwater habitats now have to demonstrate nutrient neutrality before building can start or resume. An estimated 120,000 new homes are now delayed as a result, according to an HBF survey.

Natural England’s nutrient neutrality advice to local authorities includes an assumption that each new home will increase the population in the catchment by 2.4 persons. However the HBF report, produced by planning consultant Lichfields, shows that Natural England’s default assumption overestimates the likely additional population that would result from the development of new housing. The amount of mitigation required from each new development is also subsequently significantly overestimated, it says.

The 2.4 person per dwelling assumption would indicate an annual increase in population that is over double the actual change in household population indicated by the official population and household projections – that is 73,500 persons a year compared to 35,250 a year. The critical reason for this is that calculators fail to acknowledge that most new housing caters for the existing population living in a catchment, not new people moving into the area, the report argues.

HBF is urging local authorities to amend the nutrient calculator to take account of evidence from the official household and populations projections of the net average household size in each area, rather than default to Natural England’s advice.

HBF director James Stevens said: “The home-building industry is committed to protecting the natural environment, but it is clear that the current approach does not reflect the minor contribution of housing development to the issue. We are urging the government to work with us to agree a proportionate and sustainable solution to ensure housebuilding can resume in the areas concerned. Providing desperately needed new homes delivers significant social and economic benefits for new and existing communities and solutions ned to be found.” 

Gareth Williams, a senior director at Lichfields said: “The increasing number of local authorities now affected by this issue is having a major impact on delivery of new homes in England and Wales. The calculator methodology currently proposed by Natural England has two major failings: firstly, it fails to recognise that a significant proportion of these new homes are to meet the requirement of existing residents so have no impact on overall population; and secondly, they then apply an average household size that over estimates future population. It is important that the issue of water quality is addressed but the response must target the primary causes and be proportionate in it is approach.”

HBF’s survey last year found that the majority of the homes delayed (21,420) are concentrated in the Teesmouth and Cleveland Coast catchment. The next most-affected area is the Norfolk Broads and Wensum catchments (10,490 homes delayed). There are also 3,495 delayed in the River Eden catchment, chiefly in the Carlisle area.

HBF’s report, Achieving nutrient neutrality for new housing development – Demographic analysis of Natural England’s advice can be downloaded here.

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