Phosphates on Levels and Moors

The Somerset Levels and Moors is a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Habitat Regulations 2017. That means there is a duty of care when it comes to managing and maintaining it as a habitat for wildlife. It is also band slap in the middle of Somerset. This means that all four District Councils have some land that is within the protected area.

All four councils have now received letters from Natural England explaining that the area is not in good condition. They expressed particular concern about the high levels of phosphates across the Somerset Levels and Moors. Natural England appear to attribute the excess largely to agricultural practices and sewerage treatment. Following a successful court case, this could now have implications for planning applications. As places such as Taunton, Bridgwater, Ilminster and Langport are either in or border the designated SPA, this could have major implications for the future. They suggest that “although improvements to the Sewage Treatment Works, along with more minor measures to tackle
agricultural pollution have been secured, these will not reduce phosphate levels sufficiently

As a result Natural England believe action should be taken by planning authorities. So they have written to put the District Councils on notice that before determining a planning application they should undertake a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA). This is likely to be non trivial. They advise that “a ‘nutrient neutrality’ approach to development is likely to be a lawfully robust solution to enable the grant of permissions

Mainly because of the potential scope of the requirements. The following types of development are likely to be effected:

  • New residential units – including tourist accommodation, gypsy sites /pitches
  • Commercial developments – new commercial floorspace including extensions to existing, change of use from one business to another where there is an increase in employees and/or to a use that would impact on wastewater
  • 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

Three of the four authorities, Sedgemoor, Mendip and Somerset West & Taunton put out press releases last week. These advised residents and developers that some applications would probably be put on hold.

However South Somerset District Council has yet to indicate where it stands on the matter. And this is important as the largest chunk of the Levels and Moors SPA lies in SSDC territory.

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