Nutrient neutrality – how it affects planning applications

26 May 2022

An image of a flourishing wetland

We've been raising awareness across government about the negative impacts of recent, EU-derived case law on farm development and food production for several years. We're calling for pragmatic solutions that strike the right balance between environmental protection and economic prosperity.

The case law – known in policy circles as ‘Dutch N’ – has, essentially, led the government’s nature regulator, NE (Natural England), to be more cautious about the likely impact of new development on some designated, sensitive habitats when advising on planning applications.

The 2018 European Union Court of Justice ruling now known as the Dutch Nitrogen case related to activities in the Netherlands which were having a deteriorative effect on EU protected habitats.

Read our full briefing: Consequences of the Dutch Nitrogen case for agriculture

Nutrient neutrality – what does it mean?

This heightened caution has resulted in a new policy called ‘nutrient neutrality’. This means NE will only sign off a planning application in certain areas if it is confident that the new development will not add any additional nutrients to the habitat.

Additional nutrients from a new development can be offset by mitigating existing nutrient losses to the same habitat, which may then result in a successful, nutrient-neutral planning application.

Impacts on farmers – planning applications

Farmers may have to meet the requirements of nutrient neutrality when submitting a planning application for new infrastructure like livestock housing or slurry stores, even where they are simply looking to replace and modernise existing buildings.

For many, the new requirements will mean planning applications take more time and become more costly. The further costs of mitigation measures may ultimately prove prohibitive. Of course, where a farmer is prevented from expanding, economic growth is lost, and where they are prevented from modernising, the environment is put at greater risk.

Farmers may also feel the effects of the new policy when other local developers, usually housebuilders, choose not to mitigate their own existing nutrient losses in favour of looking to agriculture.

This often involves housebuilders buying up large swathes of productive farmland and turning it into natural habitat. While this might present an opportunity for some, the potential for widespread land use change also poses a threat to food production and food security.

NFU action

On behalf of our members, we are continuing to call for sensible solutions to the issues raised by nutrient neutrality, given the varied and growing demands on agricultural land. This includes:

  • guidance from government to ensure that replacement of buildings or infrastructure with fewer emissions can be facilitated
  • broader discussion of agriculture’s role in mitigation that can work both for food production and the environment.

We have raised our concerns and potential solutions with government on many different occasions, including high-level meetings, ministerial letters, and regulatory reviews. We will continue to take every opportunity to do so in the future.

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