Budds Farm Wastewater Treatment Works has a consented treated-wastewater pipe flowing into Langstone Harbour. Photograph: Greggors/Getty Images Budds Farm Wastewater Treatment Works has a consented treated-wastewater pipe flowing into Langstone Harbour. Photograph: Greggors/Getty Images

Nitrates crisis: Councils urge Villiers to tighten up water company permits

A group of councils in south Hampshire are urging the environment secretary to formally review and tighten up a water firm’s environmental permits in a bid to reduce nitrate pollution and end a five-month housing freeze.

The 12 local authorities, collectively represented as the Partnership for South Hampshire (PfSH), wrote to the environment secretary Theresa Villiers last week to demand a formal review of the nitrate limits allowed at Southern Water’s inland sewerage treatment works.

Since June, councils in South Hampshire have been dealing with a planning freeze due to updated legal advice from Natural England, which said that new developments in the Solent region – home to EU legally protected sites – should only be permitted if they are nutrient-neutral, particularly in relation to nitrates. 

Natural England fears that nitrates from agricultural runoff and wastewater from Southern Water’s treatment works is leading to eutrophication, whereby algae blooms were killing aquatic species, thereby negatively impacting the Solent’s protected habitats and bird species. 

While some councils in south Hampshire have been trying to find a strategic solution, such as a nitrate offsetting mechanism proposed by Portsmouth City Council and a nitrate-neutral planning policy by Havant Borough Council, many remain unable to deal with a backlog of housing applications stuck in the planning system

Sean Woodward, chairman at PfSH and leader at Fareham Borough Council, last week wrote a letter to the environment secretary arguing that while waste water treatment works along the coast operated within “relatively tight permit levels”, some of the inland sewerage treatment works had “no permit level for nitrate”. He added that this meant the amount of nitrogen that found its way into the Solent was “greater than necessary and unmonitored”.

Speaking with ENDS, Woodward said that his group had two particular plants it wanted the EA to review – the Peel Common Wastewater Treatment Works in Fareham, serving 250,000 people, and Budds Farm Wastewater Treatment Works in Havant, serving 410,000 people. 

PfSH hopes that by tightening Southern Water’s permit for these two plants, the amount of nitrates flowing into the Solent would be reduced, unlocking “much needed housing growth” in the region.

A spokesperson for Southern Water said the company was cooperating on this issue with PfSH and a water quality group, comprising local authorities, Natural England and the EA. 

He said: “The group is working to identify and agree effective measures that will enable new homes to be built, whilst also ensuring the environment of the Solent and its harbours can be protected.”

To view PfSH’s letter sent to the environment secretary in full click here.

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