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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.   

Defra Nutrient Mitigation Scheme 20 July 2022

This Council along with other local planning authorities within Somerset, have received details of this national scheme which shall be funded by Defra/DHULC and implemented by Natural England. The scheme will enable creation of nutrient mitigation habitat which will be valued as nutrient credits. Natural England will then issue nutrient certificates to eligible developers to inform planning applications in areas subject to nutrient neutrality advice. There are no details within the announcement of the funding that will be available to support mitigation scheme delivery or a clear timescale for when the funding and bidding guidance will be available. Further details will be available “in the Autumn”.

SWT Nutrient Neutrality Strategic Mitigation Scheme

Ministerial Statement 20 July 2022

The announcement of the Defra Nutrient Mitigation Scheme 20 July 2022 was accompanied by the following Written Ministerial Statement. It outlines a package of further measures to tackle nutrient pollution. It also states that:

  • There will be a new legal duty on water companies in England to upgrade wastewater treatment works in ‘nutrient neutrality’ areas to the highest technically achievable limits by 2030 - the Government will be tabling an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
  • The Government will also be bringing forward proposals to ‘reform’ the Habitats Regulations – further details are awaited.
  • DLUHC will revise planning guidance over the Summer to reflect that sites affected by nutrient pollution forming part of housing land supply calculations are capable of being considered deliverable for the purposes of housing land supply calculations, subject to relevant evidence to demonstrate deliverability.
  • Habitats Regulations Assessment provisions apply to any consent, permission, or other authorisation, this may include post-permission approvals; reserved matters or discharges of conditions. Planning guidance will be amended to confirm this.

DLUHC Chief Planner Letter 21 July 2022  

The announcement of the Defra Nutrient Mitigation Scheme on 20 July 2022 was accompanied by the following letter from DLUHC. It gives further details of the package of measures announced by Government to tackle nutrient pollution.

  • It confirms that the national nutrient mitigation scheme will be optional and open to all developers, while ensuring SMEs are prioritised.
  • The national scheme is intended to ‘dovetail’ with existing private and LPA-led nutrient mitigation schemes. It is envisaged that the scheme will enable LPA’s to grant permission subject to conditions or obligations securing mitigation and phasing development if needed.
  • As a result of the new legal duty on water companies, the pollution levels after 2030 via wastewater treatment works will be much reduced and so a lower level of mitigation will be required, thus reducing the overall mitigation burden on housing developments.
  • DLUHC will make clear in planning guidance that judgements on deliverability of sites should take account of strategic mitigation schemes and the accelerated timescale for the Natural England’s mitigation schemes and immediate benefits on mitigation burdens once legislation requiring water treatment upgrades comes into force.  

The letter also provides clarity on various matters and re-states that Habitats Regulations Assessment provisions apply to any consent, permission, or other authorisation, this may include post-permission approvals; reserved matters or discharges of conditions.  

DLUHC Chief Planner Letter 21 July 2022

Letter to Council Leaders from Secretaries of State for DLUHC and Defra 21 July 2022

The following letter to Council Leaders of Local Authorities affected by nutrient pollution was received on 21 July 2022. This letter reiterates the package of measures announced by Government to tackle nutrient pollution. It further states that, longer term, the intention to ‘reform’ the Habitats Regulations so that impacts on protected sites are tackled up front, focusing on what is best for bringing sites back into favourable status.

Letter to Council Leaders

Direction by the Secretary of State to Natural England: 28 July 2022

This direction to Natural England on strategic mitigation scheme is available at GOV.UK - Nutrient pollution: Direction to Natural England on strategic mitigation schemes.

To help ensure that developments in the River Tone catchment area achieve nutrient neutrality, SWT has put together a programme of interim so that some developers can offset their phosphate outputs through the purchase of Phosphate (P) credits. Further information is available on SWT's Phosphates Planning Sub-Committee Agenda page. To begin the process of purchasing P-credits from SWT, the Council will be writing to those applicants within the highest priority groups asking them to fill out an expression of interest form and return it to phosphates@somersetwestandtaunton.gov.uk.

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: