River Axe Special Area of Conservation (SAC)
On 16th 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 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 development8 (which gives rise to new overnight accommodation) under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015.
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 16th March providing an update upon DHLUC’s position and support available for each catchment. Letter.
Methodology and Catchment Map
The Natural England documents comprised:
- The Water Quality and Nutrient Neutrality Advice Letter dated 16 March 2022.
- Nutrient Neutrality Principles dated February 2022.
- Nutrient Neutrality - Summary Guide
- The River Axe Special Area of Conservation Catchment Map
Due to work undertaken by Royal Haskoning in updating the Somerset Levels and Moors catchment Map, there are areas of slight inconsistency between the Somerset Levels and Moors catchment map boundary and that prepared by Natural England to define the extent of the River Axe catchment. Natural England are aware of this boundary inconsistency and are looking to revise their map. Where development is proposed at the boundary between the two catchments, or it is not clear which catchment is relevant you are advised to contact the development management team care of email@example.com with your query.
- The River Axe Evidence Pack note, confirming the levels of phosphorous within the various units of the River Axe. In August 2022, Natural England provided further advice upon the quality of the River Axe in an updated Evidence Pack document found here.
For authorities where Natural England’s advice is already being applied the development types affected remain as previously advised but are summarised in Table 1 Annex C.
This advice also applies to planning applications at the reserved matters approval stage of the planning application process, and to applications for grants of prior approval and/or certificates of lawfulness for a proposed use or operation.
Tourism attractions and tourism accommodation are included in the methodology as these land uses attract people into the catchment and generate additional wastewater and consequential nutrient loading on the designated sites. This includes self-service and serviced tourist accommodation such as hotels, guest houses, bed and breakfasts, self-catering holiday chalets and static caravan sites. Other types of proposal should be considered on their individual merits, for example conference facilities that generate overnight stays.
Other types of business or commercial development, not involving overnight accommodation, will generally not need to be included in the assessment unless they have other (non-sewerage) water quality implications. For the purposes of the Methodology, it is assumed that anyone living in the catchment also works and uses facilities in the catchment, and therefore wastewater generated can be calculated using the population increase from new homes and other accommodation.
Prior Approvals and Regulation 77
As the River Axe comprises a Special Area of Conservation, any development approved under the provisions of the Town & Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 2015 (As amended) is the subject of Habitats Regulations Assessment by way of a Regulation 77 Application.
Communication with Government
On 20th July 2022, we received a letter from Natural England confirming that they would be setting out proposals for the delivery of strategic nutrient neutrality schemes across the impacted catchments which would enable the sale of credits to unlock development currently held up in the planning system. Natural England confirmed that it would provide further details in the Autumn. A copy of the Natural England letter can be read here.
On the 21st July The Chief Planner wrote to all council’s impacted by Nutrient Neutrality issues following on from the Secretary of State for the Environment’s Written Ministerial Statement of the previous day found here - https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2022-07-20/hcws258
The Chief Planner’s letter can be read here and confirmed:
- The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill would place a statutory duty on water and sewerage companies to upgrade wastewater treatment works to the highest technically achievable limits by 2030 in nutrient neutrality areas
- Details of the Natural England solutions scheme referred to above
- 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.
- DLUHC will be providing further clarity within the Planning Practice Guidance to confirm that the need for a Habitats Regulations Assessment were relevant to applications for reserved matters as well as the discharge conditions
DECEMBER 2020: In December 2020 the Somerset Councils wrote to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to set out their concerns relating to the halt in construction across the county resulting from the phosphate issue. A copy of the letter can be found here. The response from the Minister of State for Housing can be found here.
Along with the four District Councils, Somerset County Council and Natural England we have been working to find a solution to the phosphate issues as quickly as possible.
JULY 2021: On the 23rd July 2021 the Somerset Councils issued a joint letter to the Rt Hon Robert Jenrick and the Rt Hon George Eustice respectively the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The letter set out the work that has been undertaken to develop mitigation strategies to allow the release of development proposals currently caught up in the planning system and notes that the issue is affecting an increasingly large part of the UK.
The letter confirmed that the Somerset Councils consider the most cost effective and sustainable long term solution is the investment and upgrades to the waste water treatment works across England and to this end would welcome the opportunity to work in partnership with DEFRA, OFWAT and Wessex Water to explore the potential to deliver accelerated improvements to the waste-water treatment works in Somerset.
The letter also sought assurances from Government on a number of issues including increased funding for infrastructure upgrades, support to deliver an investment strategy to address water quality issue including funding and support for other programmes that may be impacted by phosphates.
The letter can be read here
Package Treatment Plants and Septic Tanks
For small scale schemes that can use Septic Tanks or Package Treatment Plants (PTPs) Somerset Ecology Services together with Natural England have prepared Interim Guidelines about the scope to achieve drainage solutions that do not trigger the significant effect test. View the Guidelines here.
Please note the original guidance issued in February 2021 has been replaced by updated guidance dated May 2021. The key impact of this change is to reduce the discharge threshold to 2 cubic metres per day.
For those applications where applicants do not have the capacity to provide an on-site solution the next step for the Somerset Council’s to develop an off-site mitigation strategy to include costed projects that can deliver the necessary mitigation and to apply a cost per dwelling (or alternative, impacted development type) that can allow new development to progress without resulting in a significant impact upon the protected site.
In September 2022, the Somerset Authorities jointly published an advice note on the use of PTP’s and upgrading Septic Tanks. The advice was developed jointly with Natural England and the Environment Agency and includes advice upon sequential testing solutions, the methods of control over ongoing monitoring and compliance and opportunities to use appropriately managed PTP solutions.
The Advice Note can be read here