Another Green World: The South Coast Nitrate Crisis

Local authorities in south Hampshire have been advised by a Government body not to grant permission for most forms of residential development until further notice. Perhaps absurdly, but in desperation, authorities have even been exploring amongst themselves whether they could at least grant planning permission subject to a condition restricting the homes from being occupied, or simply risk the consequences of ignoring the advice – the position is that bad.

I’m not sure that anyone can blame the EU, or lawyers, or local authorities, or developers, but no doubt they will. Rather, the problem arises from the apparent lack of adequate measures to ensure that, by virtue of its nitrate content, sewage generated as a result of new development does not harm the integrity of coastal waters protected as special areas of conservation and special protection areas under the Habitats and Birds Directives. Nitrate enrichment causes green algae, harmful to protected habitats and birds, through a process known as eutrophication. The chickens (not those in my 1 June 2019 blog post, although the same by product) are coming home to roost following a lack of priority for too long on the need by the Government and water companies to ensure that we have adequately funded and operated waste water treatment processes (see for instance the 25 June 2019 Guardian story Southern Water faces prosecution after record £126m penalty).

The issue was raised in a House of Commons debate on 17 June 2019 by Suella Braverman, Conservative MP for Fareham, but worryingly more from the perspective of seeking to suspend affected authorities’ housing targets rather than resolving the underlying issue:

“Planning applications that could deliver hundreds of new homes in Fareham are in limbo following advice from Natural England, which has instructed that planning permission should be refused unless developments are nitrate-neutral, after two rulings from the European Court of Justice. Will the Government work with me to look at suspending house building targets while affected councils work to find a solution to avoid being unfairly treated at potential appeals?

I’m not sure how reassured she we are by the response from the relevant Under-Secretary, Jake Berry: “We will happily work with my hon. Friend as she sets out. I believe that the housing Minister is already looking into this issue, and I am sure he will be in touch with her in due course.”

In south Hampshire the problem arises from a legal opinion obtained by Natural England and shared with relevant authorities on a confidential basis. If there is a copy in public circulation then do let me know and I will add it to this post. The opinion draws upon recent case law, particularly the ruling of Court of Justice of the European Union in Coöperatie Mobilisation for the Environment UA, Vereniging Leefmilieu V College van gedeputeerde staten van Limburg and Stichting Werkgroep Behoud de Peel v College van gedeputeerde staten van Noord-Brabant (CJEU, 7 November 2018).

Thankfully it’s known as the “nitrogen deposition” or the “Dutch” case. Whilst the case concerned nitrogen deposition effects arising from agricultural activities, there are two particular (unsurprising) parts of the ruling which are relevant for our purposes:

1. The Habitats Directive does not preclude “national programmatic legislation which allows the competent authorities to authorise projects on the basis of an ‘appropriate assessment’ within the meaning of that provision, carried out in advance and in which a specific overall amount of nitrogen deposition has been deemed compatible with that legislation’s objectives of protection. That is so, however, only in so far as a thorough and in-depth examination of the scientific soundness of that assessment makes it possible to ensure that there is no reasonable scientific doubt as to the absence of adverse effects of each plan or project on the integrity of the site concerned, which it is for the national court to ascertain.”

2. An appropriate assessment under the Habitats Directive “may not take into account the existence of ‘conservation measures’ within the meaning of paragraph 1 of that article, ‘preventive measures’ within the meaning of paragraph 2 of that article, measures specifically adopted for a programme such as that at issue in the main proceedings or ‘autonomous’ measures, in so far as those measures are not part of that programme, if the expected benefits of those measures are not certain at the time of that assessment.

The most detailed account that I could find of the legal advice and underlying issues is in Portsmouth City Council report to cabinet 11 June 2019. It explains that the Integrated Water Management Strategy published last year by the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire (PUSH) authorities, Natural England and the Environment Agency recognised that there were “significant uncertainties beyond the year 2020 relating to water quality, quantity, the capacity for accommodating future growth and the impacts on European nature conservation designations.

Following the CJEU ruling, Natural England (NE), the government’s adviser for the natural environment, advises that, under the requirements of the Habitat Regulations, the existing uncertainty about the deterioration of the water environment must be appropriately addressed in order for the assessment of a proposal to be legally compliant. They recommend that this is addressed by securing suitable mitigation measures to ensure that proposals achieve ‘nitrate neutrality’. It is recognised that it would be difficult for small developments or sites on brownfield land (which form the majority of applications in Portsmouth) to be nitrate neutral.

NE has therefore advised [Havant Borough Council that ‘planning permission[s] should not be granted at this stage’ whilst the uncertainty around this issue means that a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of a proposal cannot be satisfactorily carried out and while an interim strategic solution is being developed for the sub-region’. Natural England’s advice is that proposals for new employment or leisure uses which do not entail an overnight stay are generally not subject to these concerns.

Officers sought advice from Queen’s Counsel on the matter, which confirmed the validity of Natural England’s position (as of 05.05.19). As per the legal advice received, and in the absence of any pre-existing mitigation strategy, the City Council has temporarily ceased granting planning consent for additional dwellings (or an intensification of dwellings), tourism related development and development likely to generate an overnight stay at this time. Such applications can still be considered on an individual basis if they are able to demonstrate that the development would be ‘nitrate neutral’. It is understood that other Local Authorities within the Solent catchment have also temporarily stopped granting planning consent for development affected by this matter whilst mitigation strategies are being developed.”

In a subsequent specific agenda item on the issue in its report to planning committee on 19 June 2019 members were updated:

“3.11  Immediate actions being progressed are as follows:

a)  Portsmouth and the PUSH authorities to lobby central government on the approach to the matter. There appears to be disconnect between government agencies on their advice to Local Authorities, including a clear conflict between the approach to the water quality issue and the pressure to meet the government’s housing delivery targets. We will be urging Government to examine the sources of the nitrates problem, including its own environmental permitting regimes and insufficient wastewater treatment practices by statutory undertakers, rather than solely focusing on the planning system/ development industry to present solutions.

b)  PUSH authorities have agreed to explore a strategic solution to the nitrates problem that can be used as mitigation by all authorities.

c)  Officers are identifying and exploring with Natural England and other relevant parties short term measures which could enable planning consents to resume in the short term while a more comprehensive and strategic solution is determined.

d)  Officers are arranging to meet with Southern Water to explore any existing capacity for improvements in the operation of the existing waste water treatment infrastructure and the scope, timescales and mechanisms to improve the existing treatment”

The Partnership for Urban South Hampshire (“PUSH”) comprises Hampshire County Council, Portsmouth, Southampton, Eastleigh, East Hampshire, Fareham, Gosport, Havant, New Forest, Test Valley and Winchester.

PUSH held a joint committee meeting on 4 June 2019. The minutes make interesting reading. The meeting was joined by Graham Horton from Natural England and Philip James from Southern Water. Philip James made it clear that any solution arrived at by Southern Water would need to be acceptable to its regulator, the Environment Agency. I suspect this issue is not going to be resolved quickly…

As discussion continued, Members sought views from Graham Horton whether there is a short-term solution which might mitigate risk but allow housing to be built. Members were advised that an option could be that Natural England prepares a form of words which, whilst it would not remove the risk of challenge, may give reassurance to legal advisers to support Local Planning Authorities deliver housing.

The suggestion was put to the meeting that a possibility could include Local Planning Authorities granting permission with conditions of no occupation until this matter is resolved and Graham Horton was asked whether if this approach was taken whether Natural England would challenge LPAs.

The Committee was advised that if Natural England agree and sign up to this then there would not be a challenge, but they will reserve judgment at this time until a joint position is developed and agreed which allows the issue to be resolved. This will not eliminate the risk but should give Local Planning Authorities some comfort and allow them to determine their planning consents.

At the conclusion of the discussion on this item, the Chairman summarised that it was a matter for individual Local Authorities whether they started to issue planning consents, that the best approach was to collectively work on a form of wording and it was agreed this would form joint working and the that the PUSH Planning Officers’ Group would take the lead on the preparation of this Assessment as a matter of priority. ”

It was further resolved that the Chairman should write “on behalf of PUSH to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to outline how we balance the need for housing and the need to protect the environment and to request consideration of respite from the Housing Delivery Test until this is resolved.”

I can foresee a practical veto for some time to come in relation to housing proposals in the area, bar those which are big enough so as to be able to incorporate their own measures to ensure nitrogen neutrality.

But is anyone focusing on this huge issue, an issue not just for the environment but for the breakdown in practice of the normal planning system in a number of authorities? There has been one piece in the mainstream media, a 14 June 2019 BBC report, Hampshire housing developments on hold over nitrate as well as a more detailed subsequent 19 June 2019 article in Planning magazine (which provided my way into much of this post, thank you Mark Wilding).

It’s not as if Parliament is blind to the issue. After all the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a detailed and pretty direct set of recommendations in its 6 November 2018 report UK Progress on Reducing Nitrate Pollution.

But what chance of any solutions to the immediate crisis on the south coast, please?

Simon Ricketts, 29 June 2019

Personal views, et cetera