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Phosphates on the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar Site

The Council is committed to development only taking place if it is sustainable development that includes relevant environmental protections. Somerset West and Taunton Council (SWT) has recently declared an ecological emergency complementing the climate emergency declaration made in February 2019.

The quality of the natural environment in our area is of a particularly high standard. Parts of the district fall within the Somerset Levels and Moors. Within this area various locations are of national and internationally significance for wildlife. Thus the Somerset Levels and Moors are designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Habitat Regulations 2017 and listed as a Ramsar Site under the Ramsar Convention.

On 17 August 2020 we received a letter from Natural England about the high levels of phosphates in the Somerset Levels and Moors. The same letter was also sent to the other Local Planning Authorities in Somerset.

In light of a court Judgement (known as Dutch N), Natural England have advised SWT that, in light of the unfavourable condition of the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar Site, before determining a planning application that may give rise to additional phosphates within the catchment, competent authorities should undertake a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA).

The types of development include:

  • New residential units – including tourist accommodation, gypsy sites /pitches
  • Commercial developments – where overnight accommodation is provided
  • Agricultural Development – additional barns, slurry stores etc. where it is likely to lead to an increase in herd size
  • Prior Notifications of agricultural development where, as a result of the development, the herd size may increase. Also, prior notifications for change of use of office to dwellings and agricultural buildings to dwellings
  • Anaerobic Digesters
  • Possibly some tourism attractions

Since receipt of Natural England’s letter the four Somerset districts councils and Somerset County Council have been working hard to minimise delay and uncertainty around planning applications following recent guidance over unacceptable amounts of phosphates in the Somerset Levels and Moors.

This work includes a county-wide nutrient strategy to identify both short term solutions to help clear the current backlog of planning permissions and longer-term solutions to address the existing and future growth commitments.

The Council has sought legal advice from Counsel on some key issues. A Legal Summary of the advice received is available. This advice sets out that ‘pre-commencement’ conditions relating to affected developments within the catchment area, cannot be discharged until an HRA has been undertaken.

There is further guidance provided in the Discharge of Conditions Guidance.

Somerset Levels and Moors Phosphate Mitigation Solutions (February 2022)

In collaboration with the other Somerset Authorities, consultants were appointed in May 2021 to provide technical support and develop mitigation solutions following the Natural England letter to respond to the phosphate issue affecting the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar site. 

The purpose of the commission was to investigate a range of matters. These included the review of the geographical extent of the catchment area in Somerset, to make improvements to the phosphate calculator and provide information on potential mitigation options that could be delivered within the affected river catchments of the Rivers Tone, Parrett, and Brue.

We will update this page with further information as soon as we are able and we will be regularly updating this webpage to keep you informed of progress.

This Council along with others within Somerset, received Additional National Advice from Natural England.  The Natural England documents comprised:

Provisional national tools and methodologies

Following the release of additional national advice from Natural England on matters relating to nutrient neutrality on the 16 March 2022, this is a joint statement by the Somerset planning authorities, Natural England, the Environment Agency and Wessex Water.

With regard to nutrient neutrality for development proposals that could affect the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar Site, the requirements of the Natural England advice issued on the 16 March 2022 apply to areas of risk identified in the recently updated catchment map published by the Somerset planning authorities on 16 March 2022. 

However, until advised otherwise: the Natural England generic Nutrient Neutrality Methodology and catchment calculator should not be used. They are provisional national tools and methodologies and will be reviewed locally before any changes are made to the existing approach.  Accordingly, decisions on affected planning applications will continue to be based upon the use of the Somerset Phosphate Calculator.

In addition to the documents provided by Natural England, the Chief Planner for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DHLUC) also wrote to all local authorities on 16 March 2022 providing an update upon DHLUC’s position and support available for each catchment.

On behalf of all the Somerset Authorities, as lead authority for the Somerset Levels and Moors, Somerset West and Taunton submitted a request for further funding support through the Nutrient Pollution Mitigation Fund.   

On 16 March 2022, this Council, along with others within Somerset, Devon and Dorset, received a letter from Natural England that confirmed the River Axe Special Area of Conservation (SAC) was in an unfavourable condition and therefore local planning authorities would need to consider the adverse impacts of new development on the designated habitat site.

The advice required that the local planning authorities as the Competent Authority under the Habitats Regulations Assessment to consider the nutrients impacts of any new plans and projects and whether those impacts may have an adverse effect upon the integrity of a habitats site that requires mitigation through nutrient neutrality.

The advice is relevant to all types of overnight accommodation including new homes, student accommodation, care homes, tourism attractions and tourist accommodation and permitted developments (which gives rise to new overnight accommodation) under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015.

Within Somerset West and Taunton, this advice applies to a small area within the environs of the Blackdown Hills. Further information can be found on the South Somerset District Council website.

The phosphate budget calculator can be used on proposed developments across Somerset. It will provide a transparent and rapid calculation of net phosphate loading from developments, including phosphate offsetting calculations for on or off site locations. The calculator has been approved by Natural England and it can therefore be used to provide a standardised and transparent decision making tool for the Local Planning Authority and Developers.

It is requested that developers use the calculator to calculate the level of phosphates a proposed development will generate and for this information to be submitted as part of a package of information to support the planning application as it will need to form part of the HRA. A planning application will only be able to proceed to a positive recommendation if the proposed development is phosphate neutral or there is identified mitigation that can be secured. The calculator will remain under constant review and updated to ensure that it reflects any data changes.

The calculator will also be updated in due course to take into account planned upgrades to Waste Water Treatment Works (WwTw) within Somerset by Wessex Water.

The calculator was updated on 8 March 2021 with the following amendments:

  • Correction of a glitch relating to the runoff coefficients of meadow / natural grassland
  • Removed wetland land use from the proposed land use options in stage 3 and replaced with an option to input bespoke values for wetland or SuDS following guidance by natural England that the previous value is no longer endorsed by them due to uncertainties
  • Definitions have been added for all of the land uses
  • Land uses with the same coefficients have been collated where possible
  • The runoff coefficient for a bog changed from 0.00 to 0.02 kg/ha/yr
  • Permit limits for some Wastewater Treatments Works were updated following advice from the Environment Agency
  • Various dwelling types and the appropriate occupancy rates have been added

We aim to implement further changes to the Phosphate Calculator before Easter 2022, in a coordinated way with the other local authorities in Somerset and with updated advice from Natural England.

A video has been prepared which provides a step by step guide to help you use the calculator.

Next Steps

Once you have used the calculator and have an understanding of how much mitigation a development will require, you will then be able to consider what your options are for mitigation. In order to help you move forward, some guidance has been produced which includes: