National action needed to address phosphates issue

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Councils in Somerset are a step closer to minimising delay and uncertainty around planning applications which could contribute to unacceptable amounts of phosphates in the Somerset Levels and Moors.

They have now received a detailed report on potential solutions which would enable developments to come forward. However, it is clear from the report that action is also needed at national level to address the issue and unlock housing development.

Natural England advised the Local Planning Authorities in August 2020 of the requirement to undertake a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) proceeding to an Appropriate Assessment on individual projects before determining planning applications that may lead to additional phosphates in Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar site.

The requirement to demonstrate that proposed developments will be phosphate neutral has prevented the determination of a significant number of planning applications across the county while solutions are being sought.

The district councils at Somerset West and Taunton, Mendip, Sedgemoor and South Somerset together with Somerset County Council have been working in partnership to address the issue using funding support provided by Homes England. 

They published a phosphates calculator in February 2021 providing affected applicants with the necessary information to calculate the phosphate load arising from their development. A small number of the calculator’s data sets will be updated.

Following further work with the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Somerset Internal Drainage Board Consortium revisions have also been made to the accompanying map showing a new reduced size for the area where the Natural England advice note applies.

The Councils will now study the report, commissioned from consultants Royal Haskoning, which has helped to identify measures required to unlock current and future developments impacted by the phosphates issue.

It will be used to develop a Somerset-wide Nutrient Strategy focusing on strategic solutions for the river catchment areas which feed into the Somerset Levels and Moors, with both short-term solutions to help clear the current backlog of planning permissions and longer-term solutions to address the existing and future growth commitments.

All five affected Councils in Somerset have already called on the Government to address water quality issues impacting International and European sites including the Somerset Levels and Moors, and to work with them to help unlock much needed housing development. 

Cllr David Hall, Somerset County Council’s Cabinet Member for Economic Development, Planning and Community Infrastructure, said: “Somerset County Council as a Planning Authority and with responsibility for ecology services across Somerset, has been working with each of our District partners to seek to address the Phosphate issue on the Somerset Levels and Moors and how we can collectively ‘unlock’ the housing development impacted by this situation in Somerset.  The publication of this document, is a good step towards understanding how this can happen.

“We need urgent co-ordinated action at a national level to address the impacts of Phosphates, following the Dutch Nitrogen case, on the Somerset Levels and Moors (and beyond) as the local approach is unlikely to be sufficient to address the wider issues in isolation.”