Epping Forest District Council has said that, since 2018, it has been unable to process planning applications that involve an increase in vehicle movements on roads within 200m of the Epping Forest Special Area of Conservation (EFSAC) because of the potential impact on air quality levels.
A position statement published on the authority’s website states that Epping Forest "covers a large area of land within the district and much of the Forest is designated as a Special Area of Conservation ("SAC") under the EU Habitats Directive". The EFSAC covers more than 1,600 hectares.
The position statement goes on to say: "At present, the council is not able to issue planning permission for new development that may adversely affect the integrity of the EFSAC, which is known as a European site, having regard to the reasons for its designation and the site’s conservation objectives.
"The council continues to work actively to resolve the current situation that has restricted housing and economic development coming forward since 2018."
It states that the situation has come about as a result of advice from government environment watchdog Natural England, which it is "legally obliged to consult ... on all development proposals that are likely, either alone or in combination with other plans and projects, to have a significant effect on the EFSAC" .
According to a report to the council’s cabinet in January, Natural England said the issue cannot be dealt with by including mitigation measures on individual applications, and must instead be addressed "by a plan-led strategic solution".
Since early 2018, Natural England has, according to the position statement, "maintained an objection" to the council's emerging local plan, which is currently undergoing examination.
It says consultancy AECOM produced a Habitats Regulations Assessment on behalf of the council for the plan in January 2019. But this "has not persuaded" Natural England "that the development proposed in the [plan], with mitigation, would not adversely affect the integrity of the EFSAC".
It adds: "Consequently, at present the council cannot lawfully grant planning permission for development contrary to Natural England’s current advice."
In August, a planning inspector examining the council’s emerging local plan advised it to carry out more work relating to the impact of nitrogen, nitrogen oxide and ammonia emissions on the EFSAC.
The position statement said that since receiving the inspector’s advice, the council "has been working with its professional advisors and [Natural England] to identify the most appropriate way forward".
The statement and report do not reveal how many applications have been held up by the issue, but the statement says there is a "substantial backlog" awaiting determination.
It said that following a review it had identified 15 applications that will not result in a net increase in vehicle movements and can be determined.
A presentation by the council's developer forum in December, states that the moratorium on planning permissions is "affecting circa 164 new homes".
Planning has asked the council how many applications have been held up but was awaiting a response at the time of publication.
The position statement goes on to say: "The council recognises that the current situation is deeply frustrating and is acutely aware of the number of planning applications that are affected by the unresolved…issue that continues to delay much needed development in the district.
"Councillors and officers are exploring every avenue in an attempt to resolve this issue as soon as possible.
"This includes actively engaging with government in an attempt to reduce the substantial backlog of planning applications awaiting determination."
Among the large applications that the council is considering are plans for a new garden town near Harlow that were submitted last summer.
It is the latest authority to impose a moratorium on new development in the wake of more stringent Natural England advice following a series of landmark European Court of Justice judgments that have tightened the rules on new development in or near protected habitat sites.
Last year, 11 local authorities in Hampshire announced they had suspended the consideration of new homes following advice from government environment watchdog Natural England following legal rulings tightening the rules on mitigating the impacts of new development schemes on sensitive habitats.