Nitrates crisis: 'No solutions’ to unlock housing in south England in sight, says new report

Local authorities in Hampshire are being urged to press the government to grant them extensions to meet their housing delivery targets, after Natural England’s advice on nitrate pollution threw the planning process into disarray and halted development.

The recomendations to delay housing targets form part of a new report by the Water Quality Working Group (WQWG), a stakeholder group of water companies, regulators and councils. The report has also recommended a strategic-wide assessment of nitrate nutrient budgets is undertaken while the planning freeze continues. 

The housing problem first arose in June, when wildlife regulator Natural England updated its legal advice to a dozen councils in south Hampshire, as a result of persistent high levels of nitrogen in the Solent, which breached EU law. The Solent Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is an EU-protected site, which requires councils in the UK to take steps to stop such areas from deteriorating under the Habitats Directive

READ MORE: South coast nitrates crisis: 6 things you need to know

Due to an EU-ruling in November 2018, known as the Dutch case, the wildlife regulator said it would not be able to support any habitats assessments as part of proposed development affecting the Solent, unless the plans could clearly demonstrate nitrate neutrality.

This has lead to planning inspectors blocking a clutch of proposals for new homes on the south coast and some councils such as Portsmouth City Council creating temporary solutions, such as a nitrate offset bank, to deal with the pollution.  

According to the report, while “positive progress is being made… no firm mitigation solutions have yet been found that would enable a  partnership for south hampshire-wide strategic approach…” 

The report, commissioned for the Partnership for South Hampshire Joint Committee – made up of the affected 12 councils –  recommends it lobbies the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to extend the deadline to meet its housing delivery test beyond 2020. The delivery test measures each council's housing delivery against its housing requirement or local plan target over a three-year period, with penalties for under-performing councils.

The report has also recommended that a strategic-wide assessment of nitrate budgets is undertaken and a package of potential mitigation measures put together. The inspector has also recommended that councils outside of the Solent catchment are approached to provide potential mitigation solutions.

Separately, Radian and Vivid, two major housing associations based in southern England, have expressed disappointment at the government’s failure to properly tackle the nitrates issue, arguing that a lack of action could significantly reduce the number of homes being built in the region over the coming years.

To read the report in full click here