Development Embargos: Nitrate, Phosphate & Now Water

Just as solutions are beginning to emerge to unlock the development embargos that have been in place in many areas due to the nutrient neutrality issue, areas of Sussex now have a new problem: water.

For over two years now, where the integrity of special areas of conservation or special protection areas (areas of nature conservation importance previously protected at EU level) are already under stress due to nitrate or phosphate pollution (usually due to historic farming practices), Natural England has been advising local planning authorities that an appropriate assessment cannot be reached under regulation 63 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 to the effect that further development, causing additional sewage or surface water run-off will not affect the integrity of nearby SACs and SPAs unless measures will are secured to achieve neutrality, either on or off site. Under the 2017 Regulations, unless a development can pass that appropriate assessment test it’s stuffed, no go.

I first wrote about the nitrates issue over two years ago in my 29 June 2019 blog post Another Green World: The South Coast Nitrate Crisis.

Developers on large sites have increasingly looked for suitable onsite measures and some authorities have been able to make available offsite measures to allow development to proceed.

Natural England’s advice on achieving nutrient neutrality for development in the Solent region (5th edition, June 2020) survived a legal challenge from campaigners who argued that it was not stringent enough (see R (Wyatt) v Fareham Borough Council (Jay J, 28 May 2021)) and Turley’s Peter Home and James Cording provided a useful update as to progress in finding solutions to what is otherwise a complete bar to development: Solent nitrogen neutrality: 18 months on, where are we now? (Turley, 11 November 2020).

Natural England’s initial advice in relation to nitrate neutrality was then followed by advice as to the need for phosphate neutrality, for instance in certain areas of Somerset and Cornwall, eg this is Natural England letter dated 15 April 2021 in relation to potential effect of phosphates on the River Camel Special Area of Conservation

Topically, HBF’s director for cities, James Stevens, has written an article Wading through the effluent in the October 2021 edition of Housebuilder magazine as to the problems being caused to housebuilders by needing to achieve nutrient neutrality, even where a technical solution can be found – the average costs being apparently over £5,000 per dwelling.

But those involved with development in Horsham, Crawley and Chichester, which fall within the Sussex North Water Supply Zone, are all now faced with an even more challenging issue: the potential need to demonstrate water neutrality. Natural England has become increasingly concerned as to the impact of groundwater abstraction on the Arun Valley SPA, SAC and Ramsar site. It has recently published its Position Statement for Applications within the Sussex North Water Supply Zone – interim approach (September 2021):

Natural England has advised that this matter should be resolved in partnership through Local Plans across the affected authorities, where policy and assessment can be agreed and secured to ensure water use is offset for all new developments within Sussex North. To achieve this Natural England is working in partnership with all the relevant authorities to secure water neutrality collectively through a water neutrality strategy.

Whilst the strategy is evolving, Natural England advises that decisions on planning applications should await its completion. However, if there are applications which a planning authority deems critical to proceed in the absence of the strategy, then Natural England advises that any application needs to demonstrate water neutrality. We have provided the following agreed interim approach for demonstrating water neutrality:

The relevant authorities are now advising applicants accordingly. Crawley Borough Council’s website for instance now says this:

Developers / planning applicants who can demonstrate water neutrality such as having significant water efficiency measures built into their development and by providing offsetting measures to reduce water consumption from existing development, and who are able to enter into legal obligations to secure these measures, would be able to proceed, subject to the planning process. The onus is on developers and planning applicants to demonstrate that they can deliver water neutrality for their proposals. For applications in these circumstances which are not able to do this, the Local Planning Authority [the council] when determining a decision, would unfortunately have no choice but to refuse them, as a matter of law, in light of the Natural England Statement.

The Local Planning Authority [the council] has written urgently to agents of affected applicants advising them of Natural England’s position and advising them that, for the time being, all applications where a positive decision / recommendation was / is to be made on an application will have to be delayed if they are within the Southern Water supply zone, until the matter of water neutrality can be addressed.”

Without speedy solutions, this is going to create real problems both for individual developers in the area and for authorities in bringing forward deliverable local plans.

No doubt there will be solutions in due course (and questions do have to be asked as to whether the issue really lies with the water abstraction licences, which presumably were the subject of appropriate assessment under the 2017 Regulations and their statutory predecessors, rather than with those who are seeking to have access the abstraction of which has already been licensed!) but how long will that take and at whose cost?

In the meantime, what an unplanned mess.

Simon Ricketts, 9 October 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Talking of Planning Law Unplanned…our clubhouse session will tackle this subject in more detail with practical, authoritative, input from special guests including Peter Home (mentioned above), Tim Goodwin, Charlie Banner QC, Richard Turney and others. Do join us at 6 pm on Tuesday 12 October. Link to app here.

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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