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National action needed to address phosphates issue

| District

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 Tony Lock, Portfolio Holder for Protecting Core Services at South Somerset District Council, welcomed the publication of the Phosphates Mitigation Solutions Report and the update to the catchment map stating: “I would like to thank officers for all their hard work to address this challenging issue over the past 18 months, and their commitment to resolving the issue going forward.

“This report will help to identify the most efficient and effective mitigation solutions to enable development to proceed within the large extent of the district covered by the catchment.

“We recognise however, that by themselves nature-based solutions cannot be the long term solution to meeting our housing needs. The pressures to make the best use of our landscape for a wide range of needs means that we must have a co-ordinated plan to deal with the major producers of the phosphates that end up in our rivers. Only then can we ensure the delivery of much needed housing and associated infrastructure.

“We will continue to lobby government to address the key sources of phosphates pollution within the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar catchment to help improve the condition of this internationally important habitat.”

More information on Phosphates on the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar Site can be found on our webpage

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