Rob Purvis / Drainage canal on the Somerset Levels / CC BY-SA 2.0

District councils who are unable to approve new homes developments in Somerset have appealed to the Government for help.

The leaders of the four authorities are appealing for urgent action to address water quality issues impacting sites including the Somerset Levels and Moors.

In a letter to the Secretaries of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, they say they are faced with a backlog of housing applications due to the crisis.

The situation has arisen from Natural England advice concerning unacceptable levels of phosphates in the Levels and Moors site governed by an international accord promoting conservation and wise use of wetlands.

The letter follows up on one sent in December 2020 which sought Government support following the Natural England advice concerning unacceptable levels of phosphates in the Somerset Levels and Moors RAMSAR site.

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.

As a result, a significant number of planning applications that would deliver 11,000 new homes are on hold and future strategic housing and brownfield sites have also been delayed.

A spokesman says: “This requirement to demonstrate that proposed developments will be phosphate neutral has prevented the determination of a significant number of affected planning applications across Somerset, including development sites that would deliver over 11,000 new homes.”

“Future strategic housing sites and brownfield sites have also been delayed.”

“The letter warns that the phosphates issue has continuing implications for many affected local authorities to meet local housing needs, to maintain a five-year housing land supply and meet government targets for the delivery of homes.”

“It requests that the Government works proactively with the Somerset authorities to deliver a clear investment strategy to address water quality issues impacting the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar site.”

“The Somerset authorities have been working in partnership to address the issue using funding support provided by Homes England.”

In February 2021 all the Somerset authorities published a phosphate calculator which provides affected applicants with the necessary information to calculate the phosphate load arising from their development.

The authorities have also jointly commissioned consultants to support the delivery of a Somerset-wide Nutrient Strategy, expected to be completed in the Autumn.

However, the leaders say the existing national water quality issues will remain a barrier on housing delivery for several years and requires urgent attention.

They are asking the Government:

• For publication of the affected local authority areas, the quantum of housing development on hold as a result of Natural England’s advice, and information as to whether water quality issues are affecting other areas in England.

• A commitment to influence further investment and upgrades in the waste water treatment works to address this national water quality issue.

• To work proactively with the Somerset authorities to deliver a clear investment strategy to address water quality issues impacting the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar site, to help unlock much needed housing development.

• To make capital funds available to assist the delivery of strategic scale nature-based solutions where the cost of delivery would otherwise negatively impact on much needed developer contributions for social and community infrastructure improvements (i.e. transport improvements and the provision of new education and health facilities) for which no alternative funding source is available.

• For confirmation that current infrastructure and affordable housing funding programmes in Somerset will not be placed at risk by the phosphates issue and that extensions to spend programmes will be permitted where necessary

• For confirmation 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.

 
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