Council to borrow £2m to tackle phosphate pollution housing crisis

A Somerset council is set to borrow £2m to tackle the house building moratorium caused by phosphate pollution in the region.

Starlings flying over Somerset Levels. Photograph: Nick Pound / Getty Images Starlings flying over Somerset Levels. Photograph: Nick Pound / Getty Images

Councillors hope that Somerset West and Taunton’s plan will enable between 700 and 1,350 homes to be built in the river Tone catchment area, but warn that a long-term fix will require “putting the screws on the water companies”.

In August 2020, South Somerset, Sedgemoor and Mendip District Councils, and Somerset West and Taunton Council, received legal advice from Natural England urging all affected planning authorities to adopt a nutrient neutral approach to development, due to the high phosphate levels already damaging internationally protected habitats. 

READ MORE: Nutrients Crisis - New builds at a standstill due to phosphate guidance 

Mike Rigby, the council’s portfolio holder for planning policy and transport said that the nutrient neutrality crisis “has had a major impact on our ability to deliver housing in the district, including affordable housing”. 

The borrowed money “will allow some of the planning applications held in abeyance at the moment to be determined”, he said. 

According to the BBC’s local democracy reporting service, the plans for the money will include acquiring land within the catchment area, and repurposing it as wetlands. This would allow phosphates to be naturally absorbed.

However, during a council meeting on Tuesday, councillor Gwilym Wren described the plans as amounting to “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”, she said, “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." 

The council also plans for a Phosphate Planning Sub-Committee to be established to oversee the delivery of the measures, and all new housing developments will need to include water efficiency measures to mitigate phosphates entering existing rivers and streams. The council’s own housing stock of more than 5,000 homes will also be retrofitted to reduce the amount of water being used.

These are not the first measures Somerset councils have taken to try and unlock the housing logjam. Earlier this year, the region’s four district councils and the area's county council published a phosphates calculator in a bid “to minimise delay and uncertainty around planning applications” caused by Natural England’s advice.  

It’s not just a problem affecting Somerset. Councils in Herefordshire, Kent, and Cornwall have also been advised by Natural England to stop granting permissions for schemes unless they can demonstrate nutrient neutrality.