HOUSEBUILDING has stopped in Hampshire as local authorities seek legal advice on how to obey environmental advice from government – a move that has been branded a shambles by a senior councillor.
Government department Natural England has released a recommendation that all new-build homes have to meet strict environmental rules over nitrate levels. This, they say, is because high levels of nitrogen pollution are affecting protected sites in the Solent area and new housing contributes additional nitrogen to the water.
But developers say the target of being ‘nitrate-neutral’ is impossible to meet as nitrates are in drinking and waste water – and local authorities have stopped issuing planning permission while they seek clarity.
And councils still face having to hit government housebuilding targets,
One of the councils affected, Fareham Borough Council, has even cancelled its next planning meeting.
Leader of Fareham Borough Council Sean Woodward said: ‘It is a shambles. Government has set us the highest ever housing target, but with another hand they have stopped us being able to issue any permission. The whole system is wrecked. It is a huge issue and it has stopped the planning process in its tracks.’
Other councils across the area have also been affected, including Havant Borough Council which held emergency talks with Natural England on Tuesday to see if a solution could be found, and Portsmouth City Council.
Simon Jenkins, Havant Borough Council's director for regeneration, said: ‘Authorities across the Solent area are addressing a strategic issue regarding the level of nitrogen deposition in the Solent caused by agriculture, existing communities and proposed development.
‘We are working with our neighbouring authorities and through the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire on this as a matter of priority. We are looking to find pragmatic, deliverable solutions which enable much needed new development to take place, ensures that the water quality of the Solent’s internationally protected sites is preserved and that we are correctly discharging our legal responsibilities in this area.
‘We are all putting a great deal of time, effort and resources into addressing this as quickly as possible.’
Tristan Samuels, Portsmouth City Council's director of regeneration said: ‘The council is fully aware of the nitrate issue and is working closely with members of the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire and other relevant statutory bodies and agencies to consider its options. Currently, the council is seeking independent legal advice to assist in this process.’
Natural England said the direction was just a recommendation and that it had been brought in to protect the environment in certain areas of the country, the Solent being one.
They said it had been introduced as part of its role to provide advice about the environmental impacts of plans or projects on sites which are important for nature.
This advice takes account of the relevant legislation and has, very recently, had to highlight new case law which could affect the decisions that local planning authorities make.
A Natural England spokesperson said: ‘Around the country we work closely with developers and councils to support developments so they can help to protect and, in many cases, help to improve the natural environment.
‘This helps to create better places for people and wildlife – something that benefits everyone.
‘However, it is for the local planning authority to grant or refuse planning permission.’
Natural England said it had been working on the issue for a number of years with the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire, the affected local planning authorities, water companies and the Environment Agency to agree a water management strategy.
It confirmed that it had advised the local authorities to seek legal advice, so they can fully understand any risks. However, it said its advice is not binding and that local authorities can depart from it if they have good reason.
WHAT PLANNING EXPERTS SAY
There are fears that the delays in planning permission could lead to developers losing money or even going out of business, in turn meaning contractors losing work, and contributing to rising house prices.
One developer, who is seeking planning permission for two new build sites in Fareham, said he fears a solution could take a long time to be found, which could put him out of business.
The developer, who did not want to be named, said: ‘There’s no end in sight. I understand the size of this problem. If it goes on like this it will impact on the local economy as no new builds can happen.’
Planning expert Keith Oliver from Town Planning Experts, a consultancy in Portsmouth, said it had received numerous calls from developers across the area looking for help.
He said: ‘Councils are not approving any new builds until the issue is sorted. This could end up costing developers more. It is very concerning. It is affecting everything from small builds up to large estates. The government is saying it needs more houses but they have made it impossible to meet.’
WHAT A LARGE HOUSEBUILDER SAYS
Large developers also say they are keeping a close on the ruling, although they are better prepared to be able to put in mitigation due to their scale.
Stuart Goodwill, head of planning at Barratt Homes, said: ‘The rules around nitrate neutrality are undoubtedly a challenge for the housebuilding industry as a whole.
‘To demonstrate nitrate neutrality you need to assess the level of nitrates produced by the existing land use, compared to that of the proposed land use, be it residential or other.
‘We have some live planning applications in the area, however given the nature and size of the applications we’re able to prove the developments would be nitrate neutral, and as such we are not anticipating any issues in this context.
‘That said, the issue remains a serious concern for the development industry and we’re following the issue closely as it develops.’