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The trouble with phosphates in planning

It is an increasing problem for the planning and development sector, and many are asking why phosphates are holding up the planning of new homes and what can be done to get new developments back on track, and quickly?

Read on to find out more about the problem with phosphates, what they are, why are causing an issue for new homes and what can be done to solve the phosphate problem.

What are phosphates?

Phosphates are a salt containing the element phosphorus. They occur naturally through the weathering and erosion of rocks, or in agriculture and food production, through the use of fertilisers and food additives, as well as in animal and human waste.

For many, it would be inconceivable that the greatest cause of delays to the delivery of new homes would be down to a nutrient. But that is just what has happened, as the issue of phosphates in the planning process has become a huge hold up to new housing developments in the UK.

For years we have become accustomed to new build home developments being delayed due to viability issues, a bureaucratic planning system, or a lack of local authority resources - but not phosphates and their impact on new developments.

What is the problem with phosphates in the planning and housing development sector?

Put simply, a high level of nutrients in rivers and lakes affects water quality. Increased nutrient loads causes an excess growth of algae in the water, which in turn deteriorates water quality and depletes oxygen, which plants and animals need to survive. This process is known as eutrophication, and it has led to issues highlighted globally about the use of phosphates in the planning sector.

From this stems an issue, flagged in the 2018 ruling by the EU’s Court of Justice, which required greater certainty in the mitigation of increased nutrient loads affecting any protected development site, including Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).

What is a Habitat Regulation Assessment?

The ruling means that planning applications for residential housing development now potentially need a Habitat Regulation Assessment (HRA).

The Habitat Regulation Assessment needs to demonstrate how the proposed development will achieve phosphate neutrality to prove beyond scientific doubt that no likely significant effects on the integrity of protected sites would occur.

This requirement for Habitat Regulation Assessment has significantly slowed the planning process due to the potential risk of phosphates in new developments.

How will phosphate delays impact local authorities?

In response, many local authorities (LAs) have put a hold on determining residential housing and new home applications while they consider how best to move matters forward. In the main, most have advised applicants within affected areas the council needs to undertake appropriate assessments for full planning applications, outline planning applications, reserved matters applications and applications to discharge implementing planning conditions.

Given that there are around 400 protected sites in England, this equates to significant disruption to LAs in their determination of applications for new homes – leading to a number of significant problems in the planning and housing development process, including:

  • There is a housing crisis that the Government has committed to solving. When Boris Johnson entered office, he famously said that we need to ‘get young people on the housing ladder, just like their parents did’. To do this the PM said we need to ‘build, build, build. Build better. Build faster’. Natural England’s advice on phosphates in new developments has stopped any building in affected areas – counter to the Government’s pledge to provide 300,000 new homes a year across the UK.
  • With a reduction in new home development comes an evitable reduction in affordable housing delivery.
  • Local authority-run credit schemes have the potential to add another layer of control and bureaucracy to the development process. The risk here is that this added control over who the councils sell credits to is undemocratic and outside of the planning process, which could result in developments with permission granted at appeal being delayed.
  • The cost of mitigating some new build development sites that already have marginal viability may result in many housing developments proposals stalling in the long-term.
  • A reduction in house building will have a substantial effect on small and medium sized (SME) housebuilders and developers, as well as supply-chain businesses that employ local people.

So, what can be done to solve the problem of phosphates in the planning system?

Luckily, there are a number of ways to mitigate the impact of the use phosphates in the planning sector. At Boyer, we recommend the following steps to help ease the problem caused by phosphates in planning and housing development:

  • Fallow existing farmland. This approach offsets the phosphate load generated by the proposed development against the reduction of phosphate-generating farmland.
  • Create on-site wetland habitats that filter out nutrients, through the absorption and transformation of the nutrients by wetland plants and microbes.
  • Include an on-site processing plant to remove phosphorous at the source before it is discharged.
  • Purchase credits as part of a LA’s (or third-party) strategic phosphate mitigation scheme.

However, these issues would be better addressed through a coordinated approach from the Government. In January this year, there were hints that this was happening when the Minister for Housing, Christopher Pincer MP, wrote to advise that he was working with DEFRA, Natural England and the Environment Agency to identify short-term solutions to enable development to resume, while also tackling the issue to the use of phosphates in the planning sector. No further update has been received on this from the Government.

Ultimately, the only real solution is for the Government to address the role that the UK water industry plays in removing nutrients before discharging into the water courses that feed into the protected sites in England and Wales. The issue of phosphates is a long-term, strategic matter that needs a permanent solution. Urgent investment and regulation of the water industry is required to ensure that phosphorous is removed at the source, which is the most logical and sustainable solution to the planning problem.

It's not just phosphates. Why are nitrates also causing a problem in planning and development?

Another mineral form, nitrates are also working to prevent development from moving forward. In 2019, Natural England advised all planning authorities in the Solent region that planning permission should not be granted unless each development had been demonstrated as ‘nitrate neutral’.

The concern with nitrates relates to the increased impact developments are having on protected wildlife in the Solent’s Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation, which is transmitted via the water environment.

Originally advice issued by Natural England to five local authorities, this now affects 24 LAs across the UK. This has already resulted in delays to an estimated 30-40,000 homes, with a further planned 20,000 homes a year also at risk.

Find out more about nitrates and their impact on the wider planning and development sector and how they are impacting LA planning determinations in our full ‘The trouble with nitrates’ blog.

Get in touch with team of planning specialists to see how we can advise you on the challenges of phosphates in the planning process.

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