Government must not let up on its actions to improve water quality

WWT Chief Executive Sarah Fowler on why the Government needs to deliver on its promise to ensure housing developments include pollution mitigation measures and protect our waterways

Our rivers are sick. If they were an NHS patient, they would be in the critical care unit, where every effort would be made to bring life back to them. Only 14%1 of our rivers in England are in good health and every single one of them fails to meet the legal standards set on the chemicals allowed to be pumped, leaked and dispersed into them. No one sector is responsible for this pollution – farming, housebuilding, transport, as well as sewage pumped out by water companies all play a part. And climate change is set to make our water pollution problems worse.

The Plan for Water published in April 2023 shows that this Government is starting to do something about these challenges. We’re seeing a crackdown on water companies, a lifting of the limits on fines for those that pollute, a dedicated Water Restoration Fund to channel fines into environmental improvements and new catchment plans with increased funding – all are a welcome start. Welcomed because cleaning up our waterways is essential to boost nature’s recovery and ensure we have thriving communities and businesses.

In the last year, the Government has also set out plans for a scheme to mitigate any pollution caused by new housing development so that ultimately no additional pollution occurs. This approach is called nutrient neutrality. It sets out to protect the most vulnerable rivers and their wider catchments. The scheme ensures new homes will not add further nutrients (pollutants – usually nitrogen or phosphorus) to already polluted waterbodies, by creating habitats like wetlands which filter out polluting nutrients converting them to harmless substances

This initiative promises to be a great step towards nature’s recovery in the UK. Home builders of all sizes are working with this new scheme, supportive of the certainty and regulatory platform it gives them. It is unblocking housing schemes in the north-east of England, in the south of England and on the Somerset Levels while protecting the water environment. But some developers are vocally opposed to the scheme, claiming it holds up development and that the nutrient mitigation measures required will take 400,0002 acres of land out of food production. There are other more significant reasons why development and house building is being held up and this scheme should not be a hostage to sorting those out. There are many ways to mitigate against nutrient pollution, including highly effective, small-scale treatment wetlands which, if they were the go-to solution, would bring the area of land needed from 400,000 acres down to 5,500 acres of pollution-busting, flood-mitigating, biodiversity-boosting wetlands.

The Government must stay true to its commitment to improve water quality and to the nutrient mitigation scheme. It must not, just months after introducing the nutrient mitigation scheme, re-consider it as I fear it may be doing with a view to allowing developers to ‘forward count’ their water quality obligations. In essence building houses first, and putting in pollution mitigation at some later point. Like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, this is rather like letting water companies continue to pollute our rivers and clearing up the damage later.

Next month WWT publishes our ‘Wetlands for Water Quality’ route map showing how treatment wetlands can be a crucial part of tackling the water quality crisis and restoring nature. Wetlands are nature’s very own water purifiers and buffers. They have already shown their worth in a range of different sectors. We want to see treatment wetlands used at scale across the UK as a natural, cost-effective solution to water pollution, that brings stacks of other benefits such as helping to reduce flooding, boosting wellbeing and supercharging biodiversity.

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