Water Neutrality: the next environmental challenge for developers

Caroline Gray Mason, business development director – water at Cenergist 

Housebuilders are already familiar with water-related environmental issues within the planning process which are stalling development progress. 

Nutrient neutrality ordinarily dominates headlines, however in the background, expanding water neutrality requirements have significant potential to be another key battleground for developers. 

This is an area where awareness and proactivity are essential, and developers are already in a position to help tackle the issue now before it becomes a significant challenge. 

Why water neutrality is the next environmental pressure point

Large parts of the country face water scarcity challenges where demand is outstripping supply. 

In March 2024, the Environment Agency released a report saying that by 2050 in England, an additional five billion litres of water a day will be required to meet growing demand. 

Utility infrastructure upgrades are on the horizon, alongside performance improvement initiatives amongst water companies, but there will be increasing effects on developers if further action isn’t taken. 

As well as having an impact on households and businesses, the water scarcity crisis also brings significant ecological challenges. Much like nutrient waterway pollution from household water discharge led to nutrient neutrality requirements, ecological harm from over abstraction of water sources  will lead to water neutrality requirements.  

Local authority planning mandates came after a position statement from the government’s environmental advisory group Natural England. They recognised the negative ecological impact of ground water abstraction surrounding the Arun Valley in the South East of England. 

Natural England, defines water neutrality as: “For every new development, total water use in the region after the development must be equal to or less than the total water-use in the region before the new development.”

Initially impacting the South East, water neutrality requirements are now in place in Cambridgeshire, with Norfolk and Suffolk potentially following suit. It is only a matter of time before local authorities nationwide integrate water neutrality into planning requirements given the scale of the water scarcity crisis.  

As a result, developers have an opportunity to get on the front foot and consider water efficiency strategies now before they become another sticking point for development progress.  

Navigating a water neutrality strategy

Much like a net zero carbon strategy, navigating water neutrality strategies require water efficiency, recycling and offsetting measures. This includes a water budget showing details of baseline and proposed consumption.

Yet the pressure is on developers to develop water neutrality strategies which are viewed by Natural England as precise, credible and achievable.  

When analysing the basic journey towards water neutrality, the first step, water efficiency, potentially poses the biggest challenge. In this space, the goal is to reduce per capita consumption (PCC). 

The first, and hardest step: water efficiency and water waste 

Many developers will be aware of specially designed fixtures and fitting including toilets, taps and showerheads which reduce PCC.   

However, to reduce PCC on a larger scale in a way which is more suitable for water neutrality mandates, developers can look to ways which will reduce building water waste by optimising the supply of water to a building. 

There are naturally occurring pressure fluctuations in any mains water connection which result in water wastage. Consequently, significant reductions in water usage can be generated by regulating the incoming flow. 

This can be achieved through eliminating flow variations with management solutions such as Control Flow with HL2024® technology at the new-build stage and with retrofits. 

Tests of Control Flow products with HL2024® technologies have shown mains pressure fluctuations of less than two per cent, which leads to a PCC reduction of 23 per cent. Field deployments have shown daily PCC drops ranging from 30 litres for an individual and up to 73 litre reductions for a household. 

Importantly for developers, when Natural England reviews water neutrality strategies, they accept a PCC reduction of 27 litres per day where a Control Flow product is fitted. 

In addition, it also means that because of the reduction in wastewater, there is a reduction in outgoing nutrient pollution from developments. This means flow variation can be considered as part of offsetting measures in nutrient neutrality strategies for new homes. 

This offers a significant step forward to help unlock developments stuck in the planning process and a proactive measure against proliferating water neutrality mandates.  

Supporting green building strategies

Given the scale of the scarcity challenge, developers will increasingly need to turn to water consumption measures even if they are not directly subject to water neutrality requirements. 

There is a synergy between water and energy efficiency, which is unlocked further by mains flow management with solutions like Control Flow. 

Data from over 70,000 installs shows that as well as an average PCC  cut of  23 per cent in residential properties, gas consumption dropped by an average of 7.63kWh per household per day. This equates to approximately 0.6t of carbon per household, per year

This is simply down to the more optimised mains water flow reducing demands on the heat plates in the heating and hot water systems. 

Mitigating future challenges

Amongst the environmental planning challenges facing developers, water neutrality is likely to emerge as a key battleground. 

Given the current projections around water scarcity and lessons from nutrient neutrality debates, there is a strong opportunity for developers to be proactive and futureproof developments. 

The key challenge is that strategies need to be precise, credible and deliverable. Key learnings teach us that a large part of this can lie in reducing water waste by managing mains flow. 

Taking positive steps now ensures developments are futureproofed against future challenges.