Examination of Witnesses

Part of Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:10 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Dr Benwell:

This situation that we have got to, where I think 70 local authorities are facing moratoria on development because of nutrient loading, is a real problem, but it is a problem because in some ways the system is working. We have allowed ourselves to reach a threshold where our rivers are facing ecological destruction because we failed to halt diffuse pollution from agriculture and to halt run-off from urban areas. We need to find a way through it, absolutely, and there are a couple of ways to do that.

In the short term, we should make sure that developers have options to mitigate and compensate for any additional load that they would put on those water bodies—that is absolutely crucial. We have seen some brilliant examples around Poole harbour, where developers have been allowed to invest in treatment wetlands or to work with farmers to reduce artificial inputs of fertiliser—nitrate and phosphate—to reduce that load on the system so that you can go forward and provide that infrastructure and development that you need, but not in such a way that we leave our rivers and streams ecologically dead.

In the long term, we need to move to a more systematic approach, where we take these problems into account in advance and we permit plans and projects only when they are within a nutrient budget in the system. It is about having a catchment-level nutrient budgeting plan that says, “This is what is currently in the system and what it is adding to our waters; this is what we can bring forward; and this is what we have to take out of the system.” Other countries have done that really successfully, and it has enabled development to take place in a way that does not take them over those critical environmental thresholds.

So we should not knee-jerk and get rid of the rules that are in place, because they are serving a vital ecological function, but we should help developers to do their bit by taking away aspects of the problem. In the long term, we need to use things such as environmental land management to help pay farmers to shift towards more agroecological systems. We need to help developers to come forward with permeable membranes and reduce the load on the sewerage system so that they are not contributing to the problem.