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Nutrient neutrality

On 16 March 2022, Natural England published statutory advice for certain local planning authorities, including Middlesbrough Council, setting out a requirement for new developments to achieve nutrient neutrality. All planning authorities within the Tees River Catchment are affected by this advice, due to excess levels of nitrogen being recorded in the River Tees.

The Teesmouth and Cleveland Coast Special Protection Area and Ramsar Site (the SPA) is a designated European habitat site, meaning it is offered the highest level of protection under the legislation. The council, in its role as the 'Competent Authority', has a statutory duty to ensure that new development proposals accord with this legislation. Therefore, it must not allow development proposals to proceed if they are likely to have a significant effect on the SPA.

The statutory advice issued by Natural England means that certain developments, which could lead to an increase in the level of nitrogen in the River Tees, cannot proceed without achieving nutrient neutrality.

What is nutrient neutrality?

The term 'nutrient neutrality' is used to describe an approach whereby the level of nutrients discharged from a site after a development takes place is the same, or lower, than before. In Middlesbrough's case, it currently used to refer to the level of nitrogen discharging from a site and ending up in the River Tees.

What does this mean for development in Middlesbrough?

The council (as local planning authority) is not able to control existing lawful development and uses of land, so the statutory advice is focused on controlling nitrogen discharges as a result of future development. The council should not issue any grant of planning permission for affected development unless it is satisfied that nutrient neutrality will be achieved.

In line with the advice, only certain developments fall within scope of nutrient neutrality. The focus is on development that would lead to more people staying overnight in the borough, as this would increase the level of nitrogen discharged through the waste water system. Other developments that have a specific process that involves nitrogen use may also fall within scope.

Below are the main development types in Middlesbrough and whether they fall within scope for nutrient neutrality.

In scope

  • Residential development
  • Hotels and other tourist accommodation
  • Student accommodation

Out of scope

  • Commercial
  • Offices
  • Industrial (unless nitrogen specifically discharged)
  • House extensions
  • Hospital development (unless more beds are created)

Development that already has planning permission, but has not yet started, will still be able to come forward provided it does not require a further planning application (where the nutrient neutrality issue may be considered).

Considering nutrient neutrality in planning applications

In-scope development proposals are required to be supported by a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA). This should identify the potential impact of the development on the SPA, and any proposed mitigation.

Determining nitrogen levels of proposed development

Alongside the statutory advice, Natural England published a nutrient neutrality budget calculator for the SPA, which should be used in conjunction with the council's evidence on population and housing growth. This allows the input of existing and future land uses to determine the net impact of proposed developments on nitrogen discharges. Please contact the relevant planning officer to discuss using the calculator as part of your planning application or pre-application enquiry. Alternatively, queries can be sent to developmentcontrol@middlesbrough.gov.uk.


Once the net nitrogen impact of development proposals has been determined, sufficient mitigation will need to be provided (where necessary). It is the responsibility of the applicant to identify how their scheme will be mitigated.

Natural England are implementing a Nutrient Mitigation Scheme for the Tees catchment area from 31 March 2023. This works by purchasing credits from Natural England to offset the impact of proposed development. Credits are available to purchase in specific rounds. Further details are available in Natural England's Nutrient Mitigation Scheme guidance note, and Natural England's frequently asked questions about nutrient neutrality and mitigation.