Fears over nitrates pollution in the Solent area has resulted in planning authorities in Hampshire putting planning applications for new housing developments on hold.
Following advice from Natural England, five Councils in the Solent area (Portsmouth, Fareham, Gosport, Havant and East Hampshire) have put the grant of planning permission for new housing developments on hold unless those developments can demonstrate they are ‘nitrate neutral’.
The concerns relate to high levels of nitrates in the Solent from agricultural sources and waste water from domestic housing entering water sources leading to excessive growth of green algae which can have serious consequences for marine life. In a process known as eutrophication, algal blooms can result in oxygen depletion, creating a dead zone where no organisms can survive.
Natural England issued the advice following two recent rulings by the Court of Justice of the European Union concerning the interpretation of the Habitats Directive which safeguards protected sites such as the Solent and Southampton Water Special Protection Area (SPA).
Natural England have advised that given the existing uncertainty about the deterioration of the water environment in the Solent predominantly due to nitrates, planning permission should not be granted unless the impact from a particular development can be appropriately assessed to determine whether the proposed development is compliant with the legislation that protects the SPA.
Natural England’s advice is not binding and three councils in the region (Isle of Wight, New Forest and Southampton) have, for now, decided to continue to determine planning applications.
However, for proposed developments on the eastern side of the Solent that involve new housing the suspension of the decision-making process by the 5 planning authorities presents a significant problem as such developments cannot be built without the requisite planning permission.
This situation also potentially affects those developments where the authority has previously resolved to grant planning permission but has not yet issued the consent (for example, pending the completion of a section 106 planning agreement) or when determining reserved matters applications following a previous grant of outline permission. Such applications may now need to return to a planning committee for re-determination as the nitrates issue represents a change in a material consideration that must be considered.
This situation is likely to continue until a sub-regional nitrogen mitigation scheme is established in the Solent region possibly following the example further west along the South Coast in Dorset where four planning authorities adopted a Supplementary Planning Document in April 2017 to specifically deal with nitrogen reduction in Poole Harbour.
In the meantime, applications in the five affected areas may still be considered if they can demonstrate that the development is ‘nitrate neutral’. Methods by which a development can be made to be ‘nitrate neutral’ could include:
- For larger developments, providing measures that remove nitrates such as the planting of reed beds or installation of wetlands; or
- For smaller or urban sites, entering into a section 106 agreement whereby the use of neighbouring agricultural land is changed in perpetuity to a non-nitrogen producing use thus offsetting the nitrates that would be produced by the development.
The local authorities may, in the longer-term, be amenable to accepting contributions via section 106 agreements or allocate proceeds from community infrastructure levy payments to fund local sewerage companies to install nitrogen removing technologies at waste water treatment works or to contribute to the acquisition by the local authority of nearby agricultural land which is changed to an alternative public use (such as open space, woodland etc.) thereby removing a source of nitrogen run-off.