More than 1,000 West Midlands homes in limbo as phosphate levels freeze planning process

Updated legal advice from wildlife regulator Natural England has forced a West Midlands council to halt planning decisions until it brings phosphate levels affecting a European protected site under control.

The River Lugg (pic: John Clift, Flickr)
The River Lugg (pic: John Clift, Flickr)

A freedom of information request by Planning's sister title ENDS has revealed that wildlife regulator Natural England has been unwilling to support any development proposals that could harm the River Lugg catchment in Herefordshire – a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and part of the River Wye Special Area of Conservation (SAC) – unless there was certainty that the level of phosphates in the river could be brought down.

This has meant that since July, Herefordshire Council has been unable to process some 130 planning applications for 1,100 homes, including one planning application for around 500 homes near the market town of Bromyard for a site allocated for development in the council’s local plan.

Under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, all planning applications affecting EU protected sites must carry out an appropriate assessment to evaluate the effects they could have on the integrity of the site.

Natural England is concerned that increases in sewage, generated as a result of new development, would further harm the integrity of the Lugg. This is because phosphate enrichment can lead to eutrophication, whereby phosphorus overloading encourages algae blooms that can starve a body of water of oxygen and kill aquatic species.

The regulator’s updated position is based on a November ruling in the European Court of Justice, known as the ‘Dutch case’, which has effectively banned any development that could detrimentally affect SACs, including excess nutrient levels of phosphates and nitrates.

Prior to the ruling, any proposed development having a likely negative effect on a SAC could have been supported by the regulator, provided there was a competent body in place with an action plan to improve it in the long-term, said Simon Evans, chief executive of The Wye and Usk Foundation. "But the Dutch case has thrown out that mechanism," he said.

Since 2014, Herefordshire Council has had a nutrient management plan in place to bring down phosphates levels to within the legal ceilings by 2027 at the latest.

Since the plan has been in place, phosphate levels have fallen from around 2 micrograms ug/L of phosphate to 0.8 ug/L, according to Herefordshire Council’s assistant director for regulatory, environment and waste, Marc Willimont.

He told ENDS that the council had been working hard with the Environment Agency and Natural England to understand the major sources of phosphates in the Lugg catchment and to come up with a remedy to end the planning freeze.

In June, a group of local authorities in South Hampshire was forced to stop granting planning permissions for new housing and tourism developments following the same updated legal advice from Natural England over concerns that extra nitrate levels from wastewater would harm the integrity of the Solent SAC.

This article was originally published by Planning's sister title the ENDS Report

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