In November last year, Bridging & Commercial Magazine reported on the nitrate neutrality problem in the Solent and how it was impacting developers who were scrambling to meet the new interpretations, with as many as 10,000 houses estimated to have been stalled at the planning stage at that time.
Housing growth has stalled in the area for over a year due to concerns that nitrates were causing a range of negative environmental effects, such as excessive growth of green algae which smothers and damages rare habitats and wildlife — including the Solent’s internationally-protected estuaries, salt marshes and seagrass beds, as well as protected birds like curlews.
Defra has now revealed it will provide £3.9m of funding to set up an online ‘nitrate trading’ auction platform so that developers can buy credits to create new habitats, such as meadows, woodlands and wetlands, to prevent harmful levels of nitrates from new housing reaching the Solent’s rare wildlife.
It will also provide more outside spaces as part of government ambitions for a green, nature-based recovery from coronavirus.
The platform pilot will be rolled out over the next two years and delivered jointly with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government; Natural England; and the Environment Agency.
If the pilot is successful, it could be extended and rolled out to a number of other areas in England, and will inform the government’s wider work on market-based solutions to environmental issues, such as carbon offsetting, biodiversity net gain, water quality and flood risk management.
“I am thrilled to announce this funding which uses nature-based solutions to alleviate the housing pressure in the local area,” said environment minister Rebecca Pow.
“Not only will this innovative scheme unlock thousands of much-needed homes for the local area, but it will provide habitat-rich areas for wildlife in a true win-win.
“As the nation recovers from coronavirus, it’s more vital than ever that we build back greener, and this project will also help people connect with nature by providing more green spaces for them to enjoy.”
Natural England provided advice for the scheme, including helping to select suitable sites to create new areas for habitat creation.
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“This is a beautiful part of Hampshire, rich with wetlands, coastal inlets and shingle beaches, and it’s no wonder that more people wish to live in the area, creating demand for new homes,” commented Tony Juniper, chair at Natural England.
“More people does, however, mean more nitrogen getting into the environment, and this is causing the growth of green algae ‘mats’ in the Solent, affecting protected habitats and wildlife along the south coast.
“This innovative new scheme that Natural England has helped design will not only help nature’s recovery in the area, but also address the historic demand for new housing around the Solent.”
He said that this shows how to harness regulation in a positive way to create incentives for the recovery of the local, natural environment.
Defra is also currently in discussions with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust about a potential loan to purchase further land for the scheme.
“Nitrate pollution in the Solent wreaks havoc with our vital marine ecosystems, suffocating the life out of our seas,” explained Debbie Tann, CEO at Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.
“This is a really critical issue and, until recently, every new house built simply added to the pressure.
“Now, thanks to Natural England and Defra, we are taking important steps towards addressing this problem — ensuring that houses can only be built if the nitrate impact is properly addressed.
“We are delighted that government is supporting our nature-based solution and this funding will enable us to create wonderful new nature reserves for wildlife at the same time as helping to clean up our environment.”
A new nature reserve at Warblington Farm — a site covering 60 hectares of woodlands and wetlands — also opened this week, which will be funded through the credits which housing developers purchase.
The farm is expected to help remove nitrates and reduce pollution impacts on the Solent.
Today’s announcement from Defra builds on the Environment Secretary’s recent speech where he set out a £5m pilot to establish a new Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment.
This aims to improve the baseline understanding of habitats and species abundance across the country in every planning authority, in order to make the best decisions towards achieving the government’s vision to leave the environment in a better state than it was found.