Nutrient Neutrality: four years on

Natural England’s ban on new homes began in June 2019, leaving builders in limbo

We now estimate more than 150,000 new build homes have been blocked from being built because of Natural England’s disproportionate moratorium on housebuilding in more than a quarter of local authority areas, from Cornwall to the Tees Valley. 

Since June 2019 Natural England has issued advice to 74 local planning authorities preventing them from granting planning permission for residential development unless nutrient neutrality could be achieved.

The Government’s own research has found agricultural run-off and the inaction of water companies to maintain infrastructure to be the overwhelming causes of the nutrients issue. It is estimated that all existing development in affected catchment areas contributes less than 5% towards the phosphate and nitrate loads in rivers – meaning that the occupants of any new homes built would make a negligible difference.


Despite this Government has given water companies until 2030 to upgrade their processes and U-turned on a plan to reduce access to high nutrient fertilisers for farmers. The only intervention aimed at addressing river pollution has seen Natural England put a block on much-needed new homes, while planning permissions continue to be granted for new agricultural plants.

To continue building, house builders need to demonstrate 'nutrient neutrality' but very few of the required mitigation schemes currently exist. Instead, builders have been forced into buying trout or pig farms and taking them out of use in an effort to unlock new housing sites and keep staff employed.

Many small local builders only operate on one or a few sites, so the impact of the moratorium is devastating. The only way for house builders to get any return on the investment in land and material is to complete and sell a home. Deprived of that option, SME builders are laying off staff and having to consider their future in the sector. Allied to delays in planning and wider growing regulatory costs and requirements, the outlook for SME builders is bleak.

While we welcomed government’s acknowledgement of the seriousness of the issue as part of the Spring Budget and support the drive to clean up our country’s rivers, action must be taken now to alleviate the impact on home builders so they can deliver much-needed housing.

Nutrient neutrality in numbers

  • 74 local authority areas have been affected
  • 150,000 homes have been delayed or blocked
  • 45 new homes are impacted every day*
  • 16,425 fewer homes will be completed each year*
  • 4 Prime Ministers have led our country
  • 5 Environment Secretaries have been in office
  • 6 Housing Secretaries have occupied a seat at the cabinet table
  • 8 Housing Ministers have been in post

*Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities' Estimate of homes subject to nutrient neutrality requirements

Here’s a reminder of what else was happening in June 2019

  • Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber were Number 1 in the charts with ‘I Don’t Care’
  • Liverpool defeated Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in the UEFA Champions League Final
  • Woody and Buzz reunited for Toy Story 4’s release
  • 89-year-old Chelsea Pensioner and singer, Colin Thackery won  Series 13 of Britain's Got Talent
  • The BBC announced it would stop providing free tv licences to over-75s not in receipt of pension credit
  • Our then Prime Minister Theresa May announced a new legally binding target to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050
  • … before stepping down as the Conservative Party leader having resigned as the country’s Prime Minister
  • The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government hadn't been renamed Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
  • The Met Office recorded UK’s hottest June temperatures in 40 years
  • And it would be 6 months before the first case of COVID-19 was reported

How HBF is representing home builders

At the end of May 2023, HBF submitted its response to government’s call for evidence to quantify the extent of the issue and explore how it might intervene.

In our submission, we outlined the hardship the moratorium continues to cause for both home builders and those in housing need, describing the handling of the issue so far as ‘a major misdirection of public and private effort and resources’.

In February this year HBF hosted a roundtable with Natural England to discuss the nutrients issue. The event was attended by Defra, DLUHC, number 10, local authorities, the National Farmers Union, Homes England, and housebuilders.

It was agreed that a nutrient forum would be established to take forward a programme of action. Possible areas for action discussed included amendments to Natural England’s nutrient budget calculator.

HBF subsequently met with government, Natural England and the Future Homes Hub in March to discuss the action plan and continue to liaise with parties on next steps.

In March, HBF published Nutrient Neutrality: Solution Finding. The research report prepared by Lichfields examines the importance of the planned statutory improvements to wastewater treatment works in helping housebuilders to achieve nutrient neutrality on larger sites.

HBF’s Director of Cities, James Stevens gave evidence to the House of Lords Built Environment Committee as part of its investigation into the impact of environmental regulations on development. James’s evidence focused on the impact of the Natural England restrictions, the requirement for biodiversity net gain and sustainable drainage systems.

HBF has successfully achieved a feed of coverage across national and industry publications, including The Times front page and letters section, our response to Natural England's article in The Times, The Guardian and Housing Today. Our research and statistics are used across industry and media reporting to evidence the impact and build a consistent case for change.

What action we would like to see now

Fundamentally, we would like to see government take action to lift Natural England’s disproportionate moratorium on house building and focus on tackling the root causes of the issue. However, if it insists on home builders achieving nutrient neutrality, it must explore short-term solutions to alleviate the burden and release some of the homes delayed.

To alleviate the impact on home builders, we recommend Natural England’s nutrient calculator be updated to reflect the contribution of new residential development more accurately.

We are also calling on government to consider a package of measures to assist SME home builders who haven’t the cash reserves to procure nature-based solutions and won’t benefit from the government’s proposed improvements to wastewater treatment.