Housing development in the Solent region left high and dry

Across the Solent region, planned new development is being held up as the issue of ‘nitrate neutrality’ tops the agenda for local councils.

According to the Partnership for South Hampshire (PfSH), an estimated 4,500 dwellings have not received planning consent because they cannot confirm nitrate neutrality, and the backlog is growing.

Last year the European Court heard a test case, the ‘Dutch Case’, about the interpretation of the Habitat’s Directive.  As a direct result of the case, Natural England recognised the importance of the Habitat’s Directive and the issue of nitrate neutrality became an immediate and important issue for local authorities in the Solent region.

Natural England’s marine mission

Natural England gave the planning authorities across the Solent instructions that deems that unless a development can be proven to be nitrate neutral, no planning consents will be legally granted unless the impact from a particular development can be appropriately assessed to determine whether the development is compliant with the legislation that protects the Solent Special Protection Area.

The Solent region’s water environment is one of the UK’s most important for wildlife and recognised as having international importance. It is protected under the Water Environment Regulations and the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations, as well as national protection for many parts of the coastline and sea.

Marine biologists have been aware of how the Solent is being adversely affected by increased algae growth, created from excessive nitrogen and phosphates causing eutrophication. The forming of swathes of dense green algae are causing serious harm to the Solent’s marine life, protected habitats and bird species.

Delayed development will affect construction locally

The problem could delay development in the region. It is likely to have a significant potential impact on current and future housing delivery. The advice from Natural England applies to all sites which don’t have planning permission. This has implications for meeting local housing needs and on being able to maintain a five-year housing supply and meet government targets for delivery in the future.

The impact for the construction industry, particularly for small and medium sized developers, could be considerable. Given that currently the existing number of planning permission being granted is very low in the Solent, the situation is likely to delay the delivery of new homes for the next few years.

Farmland to greenfield

Some greenfield development can achieve neutrality through a change in land use from agricultural use which leads to increased nutrient emissions into the environment. The outcome for neutrality results depends on the type of former agricultural use, which determines the existing level of nutrients. For development on non-agricultural (particularly brownfield) land, it is generally not possible to provide mitigation as part of the proposed development. As a result, off-site specific or strategic mitigation solutions will be required.

Complex problem for local authorities

Achieving nitrate neutral development and the science involved is a complex issue, and uncertainty exists on the most effective answer. The unique nature in which the Solent’s waterbodies interact increases the complexity of the issue.

Some local authorities are adopting a plan over 12-18 months, creating suitable alternative greenspace (SANG) mechanisms and ‘nitrate credits’. Others are delaying granting any planning consents until they find an effective long term solution to ensure planning and development continue to move ahead.

Lobby government for action

In an effort to find a solution, developer consortiums have been set up and with the PfSH planning authorities are lobbying central government, working closely with Natural England, the Environment Agency and Southern Water.

So far no clear mitigation solutions have been identified which would enable a Solent-wide strategic approach to be put in place. As it stands, each of the local authorities within the PfSH region is taking different approaches to dealing with this situation. The next PfSH joint committee meeting is in December 2019, at which the committee will provide an update on the progress of the various assessments, investigations and joint reports.

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