Water crowfoot

The Rivers Trust say “Nutrient pollution; we’re calling for environmental regulations not to be relaxed”

July 30, 2023

The Rivers Trust joins other environmental groups in signing an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, calling for a step away from the suggestion that environmental regulations around nutrient pollution be reduced.

Matthew Woodard


In recent weeks, media reports have surfaced suggesting that the government might be considering relaxing nutrient pollution rules, in order to allow building development held up by environmental regulations to go ahead. Such a move would present a serious threat to rivers, lakes and estuaries that are already under pressure from widespread pollution. In response to these briefings, The Rivers Trust has joined forces with other NGOs to sign an open letter to the PM, calling for him not to back away from the government’s responsibility to clean up our waterways.

For freshwater habitats like our rivers, wetlands, estuaries and lakes, an increase in nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus) can lead to major problems for plants and wildlife. Small amounts of nutrients are obviously essential for river ecosystems, but in excess they can cause algal blooms, crashes in dissolved oxygen levels, and the death of fish and insects. Nutrient pollution is principally caused by agriculture from fertilisers and animal waste, and also from inadequately treated sewage. It is the biggest threat to achieving healthy waterways across the country.

The Habitats Directive required that in the most sensitive environments – such as Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protected Areas – further housebuilding could not be permitted if nutrient levels were already too high because the new homes would add further nutrient loading to river ecosystems. With a government target of building 300,000 new homes each year, it is essential that the potential impacts of nutrient pollution this scale of development represents are addressed.

A nutrient neutrality scheme has been created by Natural England to allow development projects to go ahead as long as developers pay for schemes elsewhere within the catchment to remove at least an equivalent amount of nutrients that the new homes would add to the system. Some of our member Rivers Trusts have already designed and built very effective treatment wetlands using funds from developers to treat sewage effluent more effectively. This means that the nutrient problem is reduced rather than increased, and new natural habitats are created, using private rather than public funding. We could see hundreds of these implemented across the country if the rules stay in place.

Removing or relaxing the regulations would therefore throw away a spectacular opportunity for housing companies to fund a wide range of nature-based solutions, deployed on a catchment scale, which would have countless other benefits for society, such as carbon sequestration, creating space for wildlife and managing flood risk. It would waste many years of work that has been done to put this scheme in place and remove a helpful new source of income for landowners and farmers providing parcels of land for wetlands and other mitigation measures. And of course, it will also increase nutrient pollution at a time when we urgently need to reduce it dramatically throughout the country.

The open letter states, “As a movement, we are keen that environmental, economic and social policies are mutually reinforcing, rather than rivals.”

Rather than pitting the environmental, agricultural, and construction sectors against each other, we need to work together to create a better natural and built environment for future generations to enjoy. This isn’t only important for wildlife – it’s vital for a sustainable and healthy economy too.

Other signatories of the open letter to Rishi Sunak include RSPB, National Trust, The Wildlife Trusts, Angling Trust, The Woodland Trust, British Ecological Survey, Rewilding Britain and Friends of the Earth.

Click here to read the letter: WCL_Letter_PM_Nutrient_Neutrality_24_07_2023.pdf