The leaders of all four districts councils in Somerset have called on the Government for support following recent Natural England advice concerning unacceptable levels of phosphates in the Somerset Levels and Moors.
Natural England have advised the local authorities that they should undertake a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) before determining planning applications that may give rise to additional phosphates in the Levels and Moors catchment.
This requirement to demonstrate that proposed developments will be phosphate neutral has so far resulted in determination of 778 live planning applications in Somerset being halted, including developments that would deliver over 11,000 new homes.
A joint letter to the Government from the leaders of Somerset West and Taunton, Sedgemoor, Mendip and South Somerset district councils warns the requirement will adversely impact housing delivery in Somerset and the ability to meet national housing targets; and will have significant economic consequences for local house builders and supply-chain businesses that employ many people in the county.
All the Somerset authorities are currently working in partnership to develop a Somerset wide nutrient strategy to identify 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.
Additional ecology staff have also been recruited to handle the additional case load of HRAs, although these cannot be completed until appropriate mitigation is in place.
However, the letter stresses that it’s critical to find a national solution to the issue which is affecting many areas in the country, not just Somerset.
It warns that construction is a major economic driver in the UK and a key focus of the Government’s recovery plans, and if a solution isn’t found soon the compounding impact of Covid-19, the EU transition and the phosphates issue is going to be devastating to large parts of the local economy and economic recovery plans.
The districts are seeking Government support, including:
- A commitment that current infrastructure and affordable housing funding programmes will not be placed at risk by the phosphates issue and that extensions to spend programmes will be permitted where necessary.
- Additional revenue funding of £140,000 to support the delivery of a Somerset wide nutrient strategy and to cover the cost of recruiting additional ecology staff to handle the additional case load of Habitats Regulations Assessment.
- Capital funding be made available to implement the identified measures in the Somerset Nutrient Strategy and unlock the delivery of 11,000 new homes in Somerset.
- A commitment that relevant Government regulators (OFWAT, Environment Agency and Natural England) will be addressing the major contributory polluters responsible for the discharge of nutrients into the water courses that feed into the protected sites in England.