Why housebuilding in Hampshire has stalled - and what is being done about it

Environmental concerns have stalled plans to build much-needed new homes in Hampshire. FIONA CALLINGHAM looks at the background.

Friday, 22nd November 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Friday, 22nd November 2019, 9:04 am

Housebuilding in south Hampshire has been at a standstill for more than half a year.

Planning offices are watching applications pile up – and all while homes targets set by government seem more out of reach than ever.

The reason? Fears that nitrogen caused by waste water is damaging the protected seabed in the Solent. And this has led to a ruling from Natural England banning new homes, extra bedrooms and hotels from being built.

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Housbuilding has been postponed in south Hampshire under recommendation from Natural England. Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The government body stated that nitrates being released into the sea, from wastewater treatment plants and farm fertilisers, were having an 'adverse effect' on natural habitats by accelerating algae growth

Although some temporary fixes that could see planning applications approved are being considered, there are concerns planners are no ‘further forward’ when it comes to solving it permanently.

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Since spring the Partnership for South Hampshire (Push) has been working towards a solution for the wider area, which includes Portsmouth, Gosport, Fareham and Havant.

Sean Woodward, Push chairman and leader of Fareham Borough Council, explained how an interim solution was to build on existing farmland as Natural England recognised fertilisers cause more nitrates than wastewater from homes – creating a temporary mitigation to the problem.

‘That seems to be the only way forward at the moment,’ he said.

‘In Fareham the Welborne application went through for 6,000 homes because it was on farmland.

‘But a lot of other developments in Fareham can't go ahead because they don't have any way to mitigate the nitrates. So thousands of houses in Fareham actually can't go ahead.’

‘And it's crazy to take farmland out of use when we need that farmland. It's a crazy situation.

‘I don't believe we are actually any further forward to a solution.’

However, Southwick farmer and chairman of the Hampshire branch of the National Farmers Union, Andrew Malyon, said: ‘Farmers are being hammered at the moment by taxes.

‘So much farmland is already being sold off to developers anyway and this has been happening for a long time. But this could lead to food shortages down the line in 60 years or so.

‘Nitrates are just another problem for farmers in Hampshire. We’re actually using fertilisers that contain a lot less nitrogen than we were 10 years ago.’

Councillor Woodward also had concerns about what this could mean for small developers in the area. ‘I am worried about smaller building companies,’ he said.

‘They will pay a holding fee on land while seeking planning applications. If it doesn't get granted within a certain time they lose the money.

‘Hundreds of thousands of pounds are going to be lost by them.'

In Portsmouth the city council has been looking for a short-term solution while Push continues to work out what’s best for the area.

And it has found it in a so-called nitrate credit system. By making all its housing stock more water efficient, the council can effectively build up a bank of credits that it can sell to developers. This way the amount of wastewater produced in the city is balanced, while allowing for more homes.

The council's deputy leader, Cllr Steve Pitt, said: ‘This will be on a case-by-case basis. There will be an appropriate assessment with each application to make sure they have looked at how they can mitigate nitrates then they come to us and we allocate credit from the bank.

‘There will be a cost but the cost will not impact the viability of social or affordable housing.

‘We've already started making efficiencies in our houses. In a lot of instances it's properties that only have baths having showers fitted.’

It is thought the water efficiencies would give the council enough credits for two and a half years.

'That gives Push time to develop a wider strategy,' he said.

The nitrate credit system, however, is not an option for the rest of the Push area. Cllr Woodward said: 'Because we have less council housing stock, we would use all the credits for more council homes.'

Cllr Pitt was confident planning applications in Portsmouth would begin to get moving again in December as a result of the temporary fix.

He added that it was not a possibility to merely ignore Natural England's advice. ‘The council sought a QC's advice and they told us to halt until we had a strategy that was agreed by Natural England,’ he said.

‘Otherwise it could have ended in a judicial review and cost us a lot of money - a six-figure sum.’

A spokeswoman for Natural England said: ‘A change in Natural England’s legal advice to these local planning authorities has been caused by an alteration in EU case law.

‘One of Natural England’s statutory roles is 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 need to make.’

Two planning committee meetings have been arranged in Portsmouth in December to make a start on the backlog of applications.

When did this begin?

NEW homes in the south of Hampshire have been postponed since the spring this year when Natural England first released a recommendation that all new-build homes have to meet strict environmental rules over nitrate levels.

It stemmed from a nitrate directive issued by the EU which ‘aims to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources polluting ground and surface waters and by promoting the use of good farming practices’ - and more specifically case law against the Netherlands in 2018 for failing to prevent this.

In response to this local authorities in Portsmouth, Fareham, Gosport and Havant agreed to halt approving planning applications that would create an additional overnight stay in May - although some applications have been pending since before then.

Along the way mitigation ideas have been considered including using oysterbeds to absorb some of the nitrates - although it seems this has been dropped.

And according to developers a number of ideas have been put to Natural England that have been rejected.

Government assessment of homes needed per year until 2036

Portsmouth City Council - 863

Gosport Borough Council - 238

Fareham Borough Council - 531

Havant Borough Council - 463