HBF hails new approach as Natural England agrees development contribution to pollution ’insignificant’

Natural England has given a South east council the green light to restart issuing planning permissions for housing developments after a solution was found to a “nutrient neutrality” blockage which housebuilders hope can be replicated in other areas.

Natural England lifted the embargo on new planning permissions from Dover council after a study convinced it that new homes will have an ‘insignificant’ impact on water quality in the Stour Valley and Stodmarsh catchment areas.


Protected waterways are at risk of pollution by nitrogen and phosphorous

Since July 2020, the statutory nature adviser had imposed a block on planning permissions for new residential developments that connect to the Dambridge wastewater treatment works as part of the wider “nutrient neutrality” issue affecting councils across the country around protected habitats.

The guidance was issued because of concerns additional nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients generated by the new developments would undermine water quality in the Stodmarsh lakes, which are classed as internationally important sites for wildlife, particularly water birds.

A survey carried out in 2017/18 showed raised nitrogen and phosphate levels in some of the Stodmarsh lakes, fuelling increased plant growth that make it harder for aquatic insects, invertebrates and fish to survive.

Natural England’s guidance meant that before approving planning applications for new housing, which would discharge into the catchment area, the impact of the development would have to be mitigated and assessed.

The Stodmarsh special area of conservation (SAC) is the biggest of a host of areas subject to similar guidance from Natural England.

The Home Builders’ Federation (HBF) has estimated that permissions for around 33,000 homes are being held up in the Stodmarsh SAC, which also covers Dover’s neighbouring authorities of Ashford, Canterbury, Folkestone, Maidstone and Swale. About 100,000 homes across England are being held up in the planning process as a result of the nutrients issue, the HBF claims.

>> See also The nutrient neutrality fix won’t break the development deadlock

>> See also How do we stop the nutrient neutrality problem holding up development?

However Natural England has accepted the conclusions of modelling, commissioned by Dover council, which shows there would be no ‘measurable contribution’ of nutrient levels in the Stodmarsh lakes from the discharge of effluent as a result of planned development.

In a letter to Dover, the agency says it agrees that additional nutrients reaching the Stodmarsh SAC through its connection to the Dambridge plant would be ‘insignificant’.

Reacting to Dover’s announcement, Neil Jefferson, managing director of the HBF, said: “We welcome the proactive approach by Dover council to find a solution that shows the need for local considerations to be taken into account. As the modelling identifies, housebuilding is a minor contributor to the nutrients issue and the original decision to delay much needed housing was disproportionate.

“Such solutions need to be quickly found in the other areas affected so that the industry can get back to work and the country can reap the social and economic benefits it delivers.”

Cllr Nicholas Kenton, Dover council’s cabinet member for planning and environment, said: “This is welcome news for the Dover district and provides reassurance that new development is not having an adverse impact on the internationally important Stodmarsh National Nature Reserve.

“This will in turn help kickstart growth and the delivery of much-needed homes across the district.”

According to local press reports, applications for around 400 homes have been held up by the Natural England. These include 90 proposed dwellings at the Aylsham garden village.

New prime minister Liz Truss has promised to tackle the nutrient neutrality problem by sweeping away what she has described as ’Brussels red tape’ holding up development. A package launched by government over the summer designed to ease the crisis, affecting 74 local authorities, has been widely described as failing to do enough to address the issue.