There must be something in the water; nitrates causing major headaches for developers

Worried by nitrate levels in the Solent, five councils in the region – East Hampshire, Fareham, Gosport, Havant and Portsmouth – have stopped approving new schemes that aren’t nitrate-neutral.

Cutting through the science, nitrates chiefly come from three sources: animal waste, artificial fertilisers and sewage.

When too much enters the water, it reduces oxygen levels and can increase acidity, spelling environmental trouble.

Natural England is so concerned – following recent European Court rulings – that it has advised Solent planning chiefs to refuse schemes unless they address the problem.

However, the area also has significant housing targets, creating a dilemma that is causing huge frustration without a clear solution.

The nitrate fallout for housebuilders

Developers who need to make schemes nitrate-neutral are likely to see rising costs in order to tackle the issue.

One way is to install Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) such as wetlands and ponds, but these might not be options on small sites. There is also the thorny issue of who maintains the SuDS once they are in place.

Another major issue is the logjam in the planning system caused by Natural England’s guidance.

For example, Fareham Borough Council has cancelled some of its planning meetings and said developers must address the nitrates issues before homes are built or occupied.

And it isn’t just new schemes that are affected. Projects that previously received outline permission, or where full consent hadn’t yet been granted (for example, to finalise Section 106 agreements) could be put on hold.

In order to be nitrate-neutral, developers could now find viable schemes becoming marginal, while those that were already marginal become undeliverable.

Furthermore, while larger developers might be able to ride out the nitrate storm, it could prove the make-or-break issue for smaller firms who need to get homes delivered as soon as possible.

With that in mind, BECG now understands some developers are proposing to join forces to lobby together on the issue.

One of the main arguments is likely to be that using land for housing could lead to a net reduction in nitrates compared to high-intensity farming.

Curiously, this could mean greenfield developments are regarded as more environmentally suitable than former industrial sites if the overriding priority is to reduce nitrates.

Dealing with the nitrate dilemma

While developers seek to petition decision-makers, there is already ample finger-pointing between politicians, farmers and water companies regarding who must act.

There is also political controversy, with the competing interests of reducing nitrates along with calls across the political spectrum for new homes.

As a result, there is a policy dilemma on whether new housing or nitrate reduction is the priority or indeed if the circle can be squared to deliver both.

The issue has dominated recent Partnership for South Hampshire agendas with council chiefs venting frustration at the impasse. There was no sign of it being resolved at their most recent meeting on Monday, October 14, which BECG attended.

Instead, council chiefs could only repeat previous calls for a Government ruling to break the deadlock.

While guidance is awaited from Westminster, which is already neck-deep in Brexit, local planners must decide whether to refuse development due to nitrate levels or risk falling foul of environmental legislation.

With that in mind, it’s not just the water that needs clarity, but the national approach to resolve the dilemma.

We are keeping a close watch on the nitrates issues as it unfolds and are currently advising developers on the matter. For more information contact me on 01962 893859.