Council races to solve pollution problem threatening to block development

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Nitrates New Forest
The Waterside seen from the eastern shore of Southampton Water

APPROVALS for new housing on the New Forest coast will grind to a halt without a successful response to a far-reaching legal ruling on pollution, the district council’s chief planning officer has warned.

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Claire Upton-Brown highlighted the severity of the situation in an exclusive interview with the A&T in which she set out how NFDC intended to meet the challenge.

She warned: “If we do not get this system up and running, in the area from the Waterside to the other side of Lymington we would not be able to grant planning permission.”

The problem stems from a ruling by the European Court of Justice in November 2018 – known as the Dutch Case – which prompted new advice last year from the government’s environment adviser, Natural England.

Nitrates New Forest
Claire Upton-Brown, chief planning officer at New Forest District Council

Officials interpreted it as requiring tighter rules on how developers approach protected sites like the Solent being polluted by nitrates in wastewater from agricultural land and homes.

Too much nitrate in the waters can cause environmental problems like algae blooms, which suck up the oxygen and harm flora and fauna.

Natural England has warned councils that planning permissions failing to fully mitigate nitrates could be challenged in court. The problem led to Fareham Borough Council temporarily suspending some planning approvals last year.

NFDC has managed to keep the process running by warning developers that they proceed at their own risk with applications that might end up costing more in mitigation measures later to make new properties “nitrate neutral”.

Failure to comply would effectively stop homes being sold.

It leaves developers and property investors with costly decisions, and has also put the New Forest’s housing supply in doubt, at a time when affordable homes are a political issue locally.

Developers currently have three choices now to either prove their application’s nitrate neutrality, do nothing and have it refused, or agree to conditions that might require further investment later.

Mrs Upton-Brown, who leads on planning on the Partnership for South Hampshire (PSH) group of local authorities, said that by the summer, NFDC would have worked up a scheme including a system in which builders could pay into a communal budget for shared “nitrate-neutral” measures.

That might include doing deals with local landowners to buy-up greenfield property – including farmland – to set aside as woodland or wetland to off-set the impact, as well as requiring domestic water-filtration systems, for example.

According to a council report from October last year, the theoretical cost of securing 1,400 hectares of land to offset the nitrates produced by 10,500 homes targeted for construction by 2036 would be up to £45m.

However, Mrs Upton-Brown said: “There’s an additional cost. We do not have a figure but some of the projects that have begun to be discussed through the PSH group have suggested it would not put significant cost on development.

“We’re looking at different options. We have not relied on buying up land. But it’s not about buying land, it’s about delivering projects and maintaining those projects in perpetuity. We are working with key stakeholders on these things.”

To kickstart the system, money might be used from NFDC’s existing pot of developers’ contributions, which would be recouped later with bigger payments from housebuilders.

Mrs Upton-Brown said: “If we can’t demonstrate that these projects work and we can’t acquire land then there would be a significant impact.

“Developers are frustrated by the situation, which is understandable. But they are positive that we are taking a proactive approach and trying to solve the problem.”

Planning applications are currently lower than normal, she said, but that was because housebuilders were waiting for NFDC formally to adopt its Local Plan, a document setting out development rules outside the national park.

Mrs Upton-Brown added: “There’s great uncertainty which is why as PSH authorities and as a district council we have written to MPs and are in discussions at central government level – the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and ministers.

“It’s on the national agenda.”

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