Nitrates Pollution and Housebuilding – Solutions in Sight?

4th February 2020

Last summer we reported on the problems that fears over nitrates pollution in the Solent Area was causing to housebuilding in Hampshire with five councils putting planning applications for new housing on hold.

With Test Valley Borough Council joining the list of councils (Portsmouth, Fareham, Gosport, Havant and East Hampshire) that have put planning applications on hold due to nitrates pollution, New Forest District Council issuing a position statement in September highlighting those developments which are expected to provide on-site nitrates avoidance and mitigation, and with Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council announcing in December that it would not determine planning applications for housing in areas where the wastewater could impact the Solent, the problem has not gone away and is causing a real headache for developers in the region about what is required to satisfy the planners that their development will not have an adverse impact on the Solent or demonstrate that it will be ‘nitrate neutral’.

Representatives of the 11 councils who form the Partnership for South Hampshire (PfSH) (formerly the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire (PUSH)) have been meeting regularly to discuss long-term solutions to nitrates pollution in liaison with Natural England, but no firm mitigation solutions have yet been found to enable a region-wide strategic approach to be put in place and it is recognised that central government support is also required. Some of the solutions suggested by Natural England as being potentially capable of achieving nitrate neutral development include planting new woodland and creating wetlands, which is unfeasible for the majority of development proposals.

In the absence of a long-term coherent strategy, it has been left to individual councils to devise short-term solutions to enable planning permissions to be issued allowing housebuilding to continue and for developers to try and find an acceptable solution on a case by case basis.

Four councils (East Hampshire, Fareham, Havant and New Forest) are exploring, in consultation with Natural England, the idea of imposing Grampian conditions on planning permissions. Some of the proposals include conditions prohibiting occupation of new dwellings until appropriate, site-specific nitrate mitigation packages have been submitted and approved by the local planning authority.

Eastleigh and Test Valley are proposing to take council owned land out of agricultural use to reduce and offset the level of nitrates being generated (it is recognised that the largest source of nitrates is from agriculture) with Test Valley proposing to create SANG land (Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace) instead.

Portsmouth, Gosport and Fareham are planning on introducing water efficiency measures to existing council housing stock to offset new developments with Portsmouth exploring the possibility of introducing nitrate credit trading.

Many of these councils are currently consulting with Natural England for their views on whether these short-term solutions are capable of providing the necessary nitrate mitigation. It should be noted that even if these ideas are supported by Natural England, the individual mitigation package for each development will need to be considered on its merits.

In relation to long-term solutions, it would appear that in order to secure Natural England’s support any proposals would need to be provided, maintained and monitored on a permanent basis and capable of being legally enforceable by the local planning authority. A number of the emerging solutions would therefore require quite detailed section 106 drafting.

Whilst notions of a region-wide strategic approach with possible solutions involving wetland and woodland creation and improvements to waste water treatment works are still vague and a long way off, at least it would appear that there may soon be some relief for housebuilders to enable them to continue building and help ensure that local councils meet their housing targets. What is certain is that the current situation is unsustainable.

If you have any legal questions regarding planning and nitrate pollution, contact our team of planning experts.

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