SOMERSET: £2M to tackle phosphates
A Somerset council is to borrow £2M to help deliver new homes held up by the high levels of phosphates on the Somerset Levels and Moors.
Following the Dutch N court ruling, all four district councils in Somerset were ordered by Natural England to carry out additional assessment on any new development which could increase phosphate levels within the county.
This has led to plans for up to 11,000 new homes across all four districts being held up until mitigation had been agreed – including an “effective moratorium” on any new building within the former Taunton Deane area.
Somerset West and Taunton Council has now agreed on a series of interim measures which will allow hundreds of new homes to be delivered while protecting the natural environment.
It has also promised to step up its lobbying of central government, demanding a long-term solution from both Defra and the major water companies.
Councillor Mike Rigby, portfolio holder for planning policy and transport, addressed the issue at a full council meeting held at Oake Manor Golf Club on Tuesday evening (October 5).
He said: “What we’re proposing to do here is entirely discretionary. As a council, we’re not obligated to do any of this stuff – it’s a problem ultimately for developers and potentially the government to try and fix.
“This has had a major impact on our ability to deliver housing in the district, including affordable housing. It’s having a significant impact on developers, particularly local small- and medium-sized developers.
“This will allow some of the planning applications held in abeyance at the moment to be determined.
“We have set out a way of unlocking between 700 and 1,350 of those homes in the River Tone catchment area.”
To unlock these homes, the council will spend money acquiring land within the catchment area and re-purpose it as wetlands, allowing phosphates to be naturally absorbed.
Developers will then be able to purchase “phosphate credits” from the council, demonstrating that they would not be adding any additional phosphates into the ecosystem from their proposals.
Mr Rigby said the system of phosphate credits meant the money being borrowed would be “entirely recoverable” and allow the council to meet its annual housing targets.
In addition to creating new wetlands, the council will ensure that all new housing developments include water efficiency measures – such as capping the amount of water released from new homes at 110 litres per person per day, to ensure fewer phosphates enter existing rivers and streams.
The council will also retrofit its own housing stock of 5,766 houses, changing the kitchen and bathroom taps, baths, shower heads and toilet cisterns to reduce the amount of water being used.
Councillor Gwilym Wren, who chairs the council’s corporate scrutiny committee, welcomed the measures but said more pressure needed to put place upon Wessex Water and other companies operating in the local area
He said: “What we’re doing here in terms of buying up land and creating wetlands is only going to be a patch.
“What we need to do is lobby the government very, very hard to get the water companies to do what they should be doing – which is stripping the phosphates out of the water and getting rid of it.
“The long-term fix is very heavily dependent on putting the screws on the water companies – and there is no evidence that they’re prepared to do this.”
Mr Rigby agreed, responding: “The challenge here is to get the water companies to do their job.
“We’ve sent our chief executive in to bat with Wessex Water’s chief executive. As you’ll know, our chief executive is no shrinking violet, and has made it clear that this is their responsibility.
“The best response is for the government to tell them what to do.”
Wessex Water has committed to upgrading its treatment plants across Somerset over the next five years, committing to spend around £150M on the problem by 2025.
Councillor Habib Farbahi called for the government to introduce new legislation to deal with the phosphates issue, including new measures to curb phosphates being released through agriculture.
He said: “We all know that farming, water authorities and existing housing stocks are pumping tonnes of phosphates and nitrates into the ecosystem.
“What is the government doing about that? These sources make up 96 per cent of the phosphate being discharged into our local rivers.”
According to UK Water Industry Research, the largest source of phosphate pollution in Somerset is wastewater treatment works, contributing 51 per cent of total phosphate emissions.
This is followed by livestock (36 per cent) and arable farming (seven per cent) – with urban development contributing only four per cent of emissions across the county.
Councillor Sarah Wakefield – a former portfolio holder for the environment – accused Defra minister and Taunton Deane MP Rebecca Pow of making the issue worse through
She said: “It’s somewhat ironic that our MP is bringing forward plans to allow phosphates into rivers, because they [the water companies] can’t get the chemicals to deal with them, due to Brexit.”
Mr Rigby described this situation as “bizarre”, adding: “I don’t think she [Rebecca Pow] can be in any doubt at all about the impact this is having on our ability to deliver housing in the district and the knock-on effect this is having on our SME builders.
“We have not received any notification that they are bringing forward any legislation, but they bloody well need to.”
The full council voted to approve the measures put forward after around 40 minutes’ debate.
Words: Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter
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