The Impact of Nitrate Pollution on Housing Developments

31 October 2019

As you may have heard, five local authorities in the Solent area have put a hold on determining planning applications for new housing as a result of advice from Natural England about nitrate pollution in the Solent and Southampton Water special protection area (SPA). That’s 10,000 homes in southern Hampshire under deferral, having a significant impact on those of us that work in housing and land development.

Why Have Housing Developments Been Stopped in Hampshire?

It’s a topic that is causing a lot of confusion but, essentially, the affected councils – Portsmouth, Fareham, Gosport, Havant and East Hampshire – have seen planning permission put on hold because of nitrate pollution warnings in the Solent.

Under EU court ruling, Natural England reported that farming and agriculture, artificial fertilisers and animal waste, and domestic and industrial sewage contribute to the emission of nitrogen oxides and ammonia. These are powerful airborne air pollutants and raise acidity levels in the water – this is having a detrimental impact on the ecosystems and the organisms that depend on them.

The report found that nitrogen in the water is accelerating green algae growth in protected areas of the Solent. The Solent and Southampton Water special protection area (SPA), which includes estuaries, mud-flats, coastal habitats, saline lagoons and shingle beaches is protected by law under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. The nature regulator feared that any new developments in this area would continue to increase the nitrate pollution problem and so, with this in mind, local councils have temporarily ceased granting planning permission in these areas while the situation is assessed further. The confusion over the ruling, and subsequent halt of developing has caused significant issues and disruption to housing developers, and us as groundworkers, throughout the Solent sub-region. Whilst it’s imperative that this issue is appropriately addressed before any potential damage is done to the environment, those that work in construction are feeling the brunt of this decision.

What Proposals Could be Impacted?

The list of affected areas is still to be finalised, but it’s thought that all residential proposals in the PUSH area will be affected by this. This includes applications that may have been submitted but not yet determined and may even affect “reserved-matters” applications – even in cases where nitrogen load was not highlighted as an issue in the outline application stage.

What Causes Nitrate Pollution?

So, what is nitrate pollution and why is it causing such a big impact to the development of new sites in the Solent area?

Nitrate pollution is a contamination of water caused by the presence of disproportionate amounts of nitrates from, as previously mentioned, sewage systems, inorganic fertilisers and farming, amongst others. These cause the soil to become excessively enriched with minerals and nutrients – this process is known as eutrophication – and contributes to the general deterioration of water quality and fish species; not to mention, oxygen depletion, which is harmful to us and plant life.

How Does Building a House Cause Nitrate Pollution?

Whilst nitrogen is naturally present in soil and water, this is usually in lower quantities and won’t have an impact on habitats or humans as its essentially left without interruption. However, when that soil is disturbed, excess nitrogen is released which enters the water and this is what has a devastating impact on, not just the health of the soil and water, but biodiversity and public health. This is why it has been ruled that the development of new housing sites would be put on hold while a long-term solution to protecting the environment is found.

What Impact Does Delays in Housing Developments Cause?

We have a responsibility to the environment and future generations to make sure we don’t do permanent damage in these areas so we have to make sure we develop a strategy to get development moving again without causing further problems to Solent sub-regions. However, by bringing all housing developments to a halt like this, and causing further delays in planning permission, could see a lot of contractors losing money – and in extreme cases, for smaller companies, going out of business.

As well as this, there’s the potential financial losses that could occur from possible loss of application fees – either from dissuading applicants to apply at this time, or from refunds due to non-determination, from 26 weeks or after an agreed extension of time.

There’s also the potential reduction in Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and new homes bonus payments (over £500k in 2018/19).

Not only that, councils still have to hit government housebuilding targets, even though a Solent-wide ban has been put in place. This means that effected Local Authorities will get behind on housing delivery, leaving them open to speculative development in the future. It’s a chicken and egg situation – the nitrate issue needs to be fixed, but pausing developments has a wider knock-on effect.

Is it Possible to be Nitrate Neutral?

There are regular discussions on this topic, with leading strategy planners and local councils holding meetings and public presentations on the topic. Together, there is a co-ordinated, sub-regional mitigation strategy in place to try and find solutions to the proposed problems. One of the proposed solutions is to see whether or not companies can become ‘nitrate neutral’ in order to offset the potential damage. The expectation is that significant greenfield developments (50+ dwellings) will need to achieve this nitration neutrality.

For sites below 50 dwellings, it’s thought that the authorities will develop their own strategies to address impacts – something as simple as a financial contribution, either included within the CIL or levied separately, though no further details on this have been released yet. It’s thought that in the meantime, authorities were looking to meet an agreed water efficiency standard to enhance conditions. When putting in the sewage and drainage systems and water pipes to a house, the water that then flows in and out of homes goes through a nine-point filtering system to meet the standards – even then, the local sewage works will be heavily relied on for their efficiency of removing nitrates from the water. Even so, we all have a responsibility to the environment to make sure no permanent damage is done.

Many developers are looking to offset their proposals by taking additional farmland out of use. This approach is similar to that of Suitable Alternatively Natural Green Space (SANGS), however it will see high-quality farmland coming out of productive use; clearly this isn’t a suitable long-term strategy.

It’s strongly advised that developers, contractors and subcontractors engage with the local planning authority at the earliest point of the development process. This issue remains a serious concern to us and many other developers in the Solent region, and we will continue to monitor this issue.

Have you been impacted by the nitrate pollution issue in Hampshire? Join in the conversation on LinkedIn.

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