South Hampshire housing developments in crisis over nitrate levels in the Solent

The Government has set its highest ever housing targets. But its organisation responsible for advising on the natural environmental, Natural England, has issued new methodology guidance on nutrient (nitrate) levels in water, which has stopped Portsmouth, Fareham, Gosport, Havant and East Hampshire councils from issuing planning permission on new build homes. Despite agriculture being principally responsible for increasing nitrate levels in the water course, through the use of artificial fertiliser, developments across south Hampshire, accounting for thousands of new homes, are on hold.

An Integrated Water Management Study for south Hampshire (IWMS), completed in March 2018, maintains that human waste, which ends up in the sea via sewage works (even when treated) groundwater and rivers, is increasing the levels of nutrients (particularly nitrogen) in the Solent. This is said to be causing algae blooms which can harm the Solent’s protected habitats and bird species. And Natural England’s advice to the local planning authorities and applicants is… “to be as precautionary as possible when addressing uncertainty and calculating nutrient budgets.”

A huge area is effected, extending up to 12 miles inland of the Solent from Havant in the east to Marchwood in the west. Southampton, the New Forest and Isle of Wight authorities, have not decided to act on Natural England’s guidance. The five councils that have accepted advice from Natural England that “planning permission should not be granted” unless the development is shown to be “nitrate neutral”, appear to have done so following rulings on other developments by the European Court.

Some of the councils are said to be looking at mitigation schemes to unlock the developments, including “working with arable farms” to take land out of production or changing production techniques – attempting to remove more nutrients at the sewage treatment stage or by creating wetlands along rivers and shorelines. One has taken legal advice.

In a bid to counter the councils’ decisions, the South Coast Development Consortium, has commissioned a London law firm to present a legal opinion from an evidential perspective on Natural England’s ‘methodology’ to calculate the nitrogen budget for development around the Solent to achieve nitrogen neutrality.

This legal opinion stated, the South Hampshire IWMS itself does not justify a nitrogen neutral approach to current planning applications draining into some of the main Waste Water Treatment Works around the Solent. It concluded that no mitigation is needed until 2036 on current planned housing developments and housing and population increase projections. Going further, the legal opinion was the management of the issue was a matter for the Water Industry and not Town and Country Planning Act development control.

East Hampshire District Council (EDHC), claims to have signed-up to something called the ‘Grampian Condition’ which means that the council can now find ways to help developers mitigate the potential impact of additional nutrients. This effectively places reliance on influences and effects outside the developers control. EHDC is looking to agriculture to make the difference.

In a press release, EHDC’s Portfolio Holder for Planning, Councillor Angela Glass, said: “From here on, EHDC will be approving development in the normal ways in the areas currently affected by using the Grampian Condition.”

Natural England’s guidance suggests that conditions to off-set or mitigate nutrient levels should only be applied to large developments. But the decision of these councils to put all applications on hold means in effect any housing development no matter how small is affected. Some councils are asking for balancing contributions per dwelling. In reality it is very difficult for a small site to off-set its nutrient levels. This involves remedial measures like increasing the size of SANG’s/open space’s or installing local reed beds. Or it can be down to individual dwellings, installing domestic sewage treatment equipment which reduce nitrate concentrations.

Looking at both sides of the argument and taking into account the legal opinion on the evidence the South Hampshire IWMS was based on; it is hard to understand why there has been such a knee jerk reaction by these local authorities.

The arguments rage on, but if these councils won’t accept nutrient levels on current and projected developments in their areas are well within predicted and approved levels up to 2036 and no constructive solution can be found, Ground & Water can provide nitrate/phosphorus balancing calculations and remedial options, to help developers get their planning applications out of the Doldrums. If you need help contact us today.

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