Is the Levelling Up Bill heading up a creek without a paddle?

December 9, 2022

We need to talk about the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) Amendments; specifically amendment numbers NC77 and NS1. NC77 is better known as the wastewater treatment works (WwTWs) Technically Achievable Limits (TAL) amendment that says that all WwTWs serving 2000 or more people and in areas currently affected by Nutrient Neutrality need to be upgraded to TAL for nitrogen (N) and/or phosphorus (P) removal by 2030. For WwTWs that serve between 250 and 2000 people, upgrades may be needed at the discretion / direction of the Secretary of State. This clause, while well-meaning, creates a fair degree of uncertainty given the impact these upgrades have on both nutrient mitigation requirements for developments and capital spending by water companies.

Amendment NS1 is perhaps less meaty, but is as impactful. It is amending the Habitat Regulations to effectively say that when you are doing a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) involving Nutrient Neutrality, you can rely on the upgrade to TAL at a WwTW being delivered by “the upgrade date” (for currently affected catchments this is 2030). So new developments connecting to WwTWs serving > 2000 people can assume that from 2030, they need much less mitigation.  

Okay, so this kind of sounds good, right? We have legislation to help massively reduce, via WwTW upgrades to TAL, the amount of nutrient mitigation needed to achieve nutrient neutral development. And legislation that allows HRAs to take heed of legal requirements to deliver these upgrades. BUT, there is an elephant in the room:

We have analysed available data on population equivalents (PE; the number of people served by a WwTW) and the current situation with WwTW permits, including their upgrade schedule to 2025. As you can see, it doesn’t look good. Across the areas affected by Nutrient Neutrality in England, we have been able to match data on permits to whether a WwTW has a PE of > 2000 for 511 of around 600 WwTWs. Here are the key takeaways:

  • 13, or 3%, of the WwTWs currently have a permit at TAL or are being upgraded to TAL by 2025.
  • 377, or 74%, of the WwTWs are “small WwTWs” which may or may not be getting upgraded to TAL; the ones to be upgraded at the Secretary of State’s discretion / direction, i.e. the really uncertain and unhelpful ones…
  • 43, or 8%, of the WwTWs with a PE > 2000 have no permit at the moment and are not getting one by 2025, meaning big infrastructure investments and projects at each of these works.
  • A total of 71, or 14%*, of the WwTWs will have a permit in place by 2025, but this permit will be > TAL. These WwTWs will either need operational or capital investment, or both, in order to meet the TAL requirements by 2030.

So, we are looking at 25% of the WwTWs in the areas affected by Nutrient Neutrality being caught by the LURB amendments. It is true that in most places larger treatment works (those with PE > 2000) are more likely to see new development connect to them because new development tends to cluster around existing conurbations. However, this just means that an issue that is already disproportionately impacting small, rural developers will do so even more. Not really “levelling up” that, is it!?

We also need to talk about the scale of the task for the water companies. Water company investment in things like WwTW upgrades goes in 5-year cycles known as the Asset Management Planning (AMP) cycle. We are currently in the 7th of these cycles (AMP7). In AMP7, 32 WwTWs are being upgraded to have tighter P permits (4 of these permits are going to TAL). This means that at a minimum, taking only the WwTWs with PE > 2000, water companies will need to deliver 128 upgrade programmes in the next AMP cycle - a four-fold increase on what they are delivering in the affected catchment areas in AMP7!          

You will also note that I only mentioned 32 WwTWs getting tighter P permits. There are no planned N stripping upgrades in the affected catchment areas in AMP7. Furthermore, there are only 12 WwTWs with N stripping technology out of at least 231 WwTWs in catchments where N is a problem nutrient. 11 of these WwTWs are in the Solent catchment (the other is in Poole Harbour). This adds an extra geographical component to requirements on water companies, with those companies in N affected catchments potentially being hit even harder, especially Northumbrian Water in the River Tees and Lindisfarne catchments, and Anglian Water in the Broads and Wensum catchments. (See previous comment on “levelling up”…)

What does this all mean? In short, it’s hard to say. The LURB and these amendments have not passed yet. If they do pass, it seems that water companies have their work cut out to deliver the required upgrade programme to the 2030 deadline. Crystal ball gazing on whether they will manage it or not isn’t helpful, but what we do know is that there are a lot of small WwTWs that are not going to get upgraded. Whatever happens, nutrient mitigation is going to be needed at scale for some time yet. This fact is compounded by us not having reached the total number of catchments where Nutrient Neutrality is likely to be a problem, as there is a high potential for more catchments to be caught by Nutrient Neutrality in the future.  

Greenshank Environmental is here to help developers and landowners deliver nutrient mitigation and get the development sector moving again in areas affected by Nutrient Neutrality. The scale of the challenge outlined above, especially in respect of small WwTWs, highlights that we will be relying heavily on our chosen means to tackle Nutrient Neutrality: Nature-Based Solutions.

For interested parties, we can also provide a deep dive into regional differences in the impacts of the LURB to help developers better understand their future mitigation requirements.      

*percentages don’t add up to 100% due to rounding.

Image was designed by Dal-E    


Kim Connor Streich

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