Government watchdog issues 'nutrient neutrality' warning to Somerset councils over new applications

Natural England has warned councils in Somerset that planning applications for housing, agricultural and energy projects should only be approved if it can be shown that the proposals will not lead to a rise in phosphate levels at nearby protected environmental sites.

Somerset Levels: Natural England issues warning over phosphate levels. Pic: Flickr / Alison Day
Somerset Levels: Natural England issues warning over phosphate levels. Pic: Flickr / Alison Day

All such applications in the county should be subject to a habitats regulation assessment (HRA) to discern the likely impact on the protected Somerset Levels and Moors site, according to new guidance from the government’s environmental watchdog.

Under the HRA process, development projects are assessed to see if they breach rules protecting sensitive habitats, such as EU "special protected areas" (SPAs). During these appraisals, known as "appropriate assessments", promoters of such projects will often cite measures that they argue will mitigate any habitat harm.

“Having carried out that assessment, permission for the plan or project may only be given if the assessment allows you to ascertain that it will not have an adverse effect on the integrity of the site,” the Natural England advice says.

Natural England advised that a “nutrient neutrality” approach, whereby applicants demonstrate that a proposed development will not lead to an increase in levels of nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates, was likely to be a “lawfully robust solution”.

The guidance raises the prospect of planning delays as local authorities and applicants grapple with how to ensure nutrient neutrality. 

Local authorities in the Solent and the West Midlands have recently had to put on hold determining planning applications for thousands of homes after Natural England issued similar warnings about levels of nitrates and phosphates at protected sites.

According to Natural England, the 6,000-plus-hectare Somerset Levels and Moors site is designated as a special protected area under the Habitats Regulations 2017 and protected under the Ramsar Convention.

Natural England said it is concerned about excessive phosphate levels at the site and the possibility that development could lead to further increases. Plans for additional residential units, agricultural intensification, and anaerobic digester plants are of particular concern, it added.

The series of warnings issued by Natural England over nutrient levels has been prompted by a 2018 European Court of Justice ruling, in what is commonly known as “the Dutch case”. That ruling found the authorisation of activities that would compromise efforts to restore protected natural habitats to favourable conditions should be “necessarily limited”.

Natural England advised that the case “has resulted in greater scrutiny of plans or projects that will result in increased nutrient loads” at protected environmental sites.

Commenting on LinkedIn, John Hammond, associate director at consultants Chapman Lily Planning, said: “Given the varying approaches operated by the South Hampshire authorities to achieving suitable mitigation it will be interesting to see how quickly Somerset which has hitherto avoided the impacts of HRA's upon the development cycle gets up to speed with this further tier of assessment and what it means for housing and farming in the interim.”

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