Nitrogen exemptions for farmers

Examining the additional nitrate loading limits being granted to farms in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones

Responses we received from a Freedom of Information (FOI) exercise have revealed that, in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs), farmers have secured additional nitrogen allowance in the last year which equates to the nitrogen production of the occupants of 603,000 homes.

In Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) farmers can apply up to 170kg per hectare of nitrogen in livestock manure to their land. Each year farmers can apply to the Environment Agency for a derogation from environmental regulations.

These applications can grant farmers up to 250kg of nitrogen per hectare. This is while Natural England’s moratorium on home building remains and has persisted since June 2019.

The ban on new builds is an attempt to address high phosphate and nitrate levels in rivers and has spread to over a quarter of England’s local authority areas, affecting more than 160,000 homes.

1.1 million kgs

of additional nitrogen has been granted to farms in 2023. That's an additional 22%.

603,000 homes

could be occupied with the same allowance of nitrogen as last year's additional nitrogen allowance.

Just one quarter

of the nitrogen allowance awarded to farmers in 2023 would allow the 160,000 homes blocked by nutrient neutrality to be occupied.

How many derogations are granted each year?

In response to HBF’s Freedom of Information request, the Environment Agency has provided details of the derogations (exemptions) granted to farmers during 2023.

In total, 190 exemptions were granted in 2023. The successful applicants already had a combined Nitrogen allowance of just under 5 million kilogrammes of nitrogen per year. The exemptions to these 190 farms increased the legal limits for nitrogen spreading by more than 1.1 million kgs (an additional 22%).

In the six years to 2023, the Environment Agency received 1,394 applications for derogations. The success rate for these applications was 98.6%, with 1,374 granted.

On average, over the five year period 2018-22, successful applicants to the scheme received an additional allowance equivalent to an extra 22% (38kg Nitrogen per hectare) on top of the 170kg per hectare per year limit that otherwise applies in NVZs.

If homes were afforded just one quarter of the annual nitrogen production afforded to farmers through derogations granted in 2023, all 160,000 new homes blocked by nutrient neutrality could be occupied.

How to the exemptions equate to home building?

Occupants of new homes account for just 0.3% of nitrogen emissions each year.

sheep nutrients icon

A sheep produces the same nutrients as the occupants of 3 new houses.

cow nutrients icon

One dairy cow produces the same nutrients as the occupants of 29 new houses.

tractor nutrients icon

Agricultural activities are responsible for 70% of nitrogen pollution.

It is estimated that around 160,000 new homes remain blocked in the planning process due to Natural England’s interpretation of EU law and the imposition of nutrient neutrality requirements.

We can estimate that just the additional nitrogen use approved through last year’s derogation process represents the equivalent nitrogen production of the occupants of 603,000 homes.

The total potential annual nitrogen production from the residents of 160,000 new homes would equate to less than one quarter of the amount afforded to farmers through the derogations granted in 2023.

Exemptions granted by region

Home building in the North West, West Midlands and South West has been significantly impacted over the past five years by nutrient neutrality measures imposed to prevent nitrate and phosphate pollution of rivers, despite the evidence pointing to home building making no impact and new home occupancy presenting a negligible potential impact.

The results of the Freedom of Information request show that three regions account for more than 90% of all successful applications to EA for derogations in England over the past five years.

Over the past five years, 49% of derogations granted in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones were located in the North West. The Midlands accounted for 32% of derogations granted and the South West saw 211 successful applications, 15% of the total granted between 2018 and 2023.

Although the Environment Agency has this time grouped the East and West Midlands as one region, previous years’ results show that the West Midlands accounted for around five times the number of applications as the East Midlands.

In most regions the success rate for applications stands at more than 95%. EA has not refused an application for a derogation in the South East or East of England, though it should be noted that these are areas where few applications are made.

In the North West and Midlands, seven of the 1,127 applications received between 2018 and 2023 have been refused.

Frequently Asked Questions

Natural England has imposed a moratorium on development across 74 local planning authorities in England due to high concentrations of nutrients (including nitrates) in waterways.

Adopting a ‘precautionary principle’ in its application of the European Union Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (“the Habitats Regulations”), Natural England’s interventions with planning authorities take the view that any potential additional nutrient load from development, however small, must be intervened upon if there is already ‘a polluted system’. Development can only proceed where it is proven to be ‘nutrient neutral’ and where measures to achieve neutrality have been implemented.

It is estimated that 155,000 homes remain blocked by the Nutrient Neutrality requirements imposed by Natural England since 2019. In addition, because of the influence this has had on house builder investment in affected areas, it is extremely likely that the number of homes that have not been built as a result of the intervention is a multiple of this number.

The Government describes areas ‘at risk from agricultural nitrate pollution’ as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs).

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) are areas designated as being at risk from agricultural nitrate pollution. They include about 55% of land in England.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reviews NVZs every 4 years to account for changes in nitrate concentrations.

The last review was in December 2020. It did not find substantial changes in the patterns of nitrate pollution in England, so the areas designated as NVZs remain the same for 2021 to 2024.

Farm businesses within Nitrate Vulnerable Zones could apply for derogations to increase the maximum nitrogen per hectare available to them from 170kg per hectare to 250kg per hectare between 5 June 2023 and 4 July 2023.

The limits imposed on farmers are derived from the ‘European Council Directive concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources’, originally published in 1991 and amended in 2008 (“the Nitrates Directive”) and the European Communities (Good Agricultural Practice for Protection of Waters) Regulations 2017.

The regulations are a set of measures designed to ‘ensure the protection of waters, including drinking water sources, against pollution caused by nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural sources, with the primary emphasis on the management of livestock manures and other fertilisers’.

Along with other EU habitats regulations, these requirements have been absorbed into UK law post-Brexit.

The regulations require Member States to designate NVZs and enforce a limit of 170kg Nitrogen per hectare in such zones. Member States can then apply to the EU for limited discretion to allow derogations from the Nitrates Directive. Amongst current EU states, Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands have derogation schemes in place.

Rejected applicants have 30 days to appeal with an independent panel assessing the application at that point.