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21/01/2022

Phosphate problem could still blight North Wales LDPs

Words: Roger Milne
River Dee \ Shutterstock_1550694896

Two North Wales replacement local plans look to have made significant progress this week after a lengthy hiatus as the planning system grappled with the problems posed by tough new targets imposed by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) designed to ensure developments do not increase phosphate pollution in rivers which form part of Special Areas of Conservation (SAC).

The inspectors examining the draft local development plans (LDPs) for Flintshire County Council and Wrexham County Borough Council said the phosphate pollution policy issue had raised ‘considerable uncertainty’ over the viability of housing sites included in the two blueprints. As a result, the neighbouring councils have cooperated with National Resources Wales (NRW) and prepared a draft catchment phosphorus reduction strategy covering the River Dee, the river most at risk from pollution from development in those two local authorities.

This offers a way for some new development to come forward irrespective of whether sites are allocated for development in the LDP or situated within existing unitary development plan settlement limits, subject to the implementation of mitigation measures outlined in the strategy – ensuring that wastewater treatment plants remove phosphate and the provision of sustainable drainage schemes (SuDs).

This and other work has persuaded the inspectors that they now have enough information to determine the soundness of the plans. The councils have been informed of the inspectors’ stance.

The Welsh Government has endorsed the approach taken by the two authorities “given the advanced stage reached by both plans in their progress to adoption”.

However, the administration has stressed that for those local planning authorities submitting LDPs for examination in the future “relevant mitigation measures/approaches should be costed and included in viability assessments, shaping affordable housing policies section 106 monies being sought ensuring development remains viable and deliverable”.

The phosphate issue is casting a long shadow over housing and development in Wales – and not just in respect of development plans.

“It is also having a significant, detrimental impact upon the determination of individual planning applications,” explained Wrexham County Borough Council’s chief planner Lawrence Isted.

“There are currently around 60 applications which cannot be determined because of this issue and given that applications continue to be submitted and we cannot refuse to register them if they are valid, the number of such pending applications will continue to rise. Other councils in Wales have similar numbers.”

Each application now requires what is called an Appropriate Assessment under the Habitat Regulations to assess the impacts of the proposed development on the SAC and then to provide either on-site or off-site mitigation to overcome such effects, so that the development is ‘phosphorus neutral’.

Even when an Appropriate Assessment is completed, there is no guarantee that it will enable a positive recommendation to be made on a planning application. Unless the development proposals deliver adequate levels of phosphorus mitigation that can be secured through conditions and/or planning obligations, the assessments are likely to conclude that the proposals will have an adverse effect on the SAC and that the planning applications should be refused.   

NRW is increasingly recommending this. “There are growing fears that this issue could become an effective moratorium on new development in Wales,” said Isted.

He added: “The only option available to the council to clear the increasing backlog of applications is to refuse them on the grounds of harm to the SAC, which is what other badly affected authorities, such as Brecon Beacons, Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Powys are already doing and many others are moving towards.

“Such refusals will increase the appeal caseload of the council, putting considerable pressure on officers and diverting them from their normal activities, not to mention the impact it will have on applicants.”

Both planning authorities were signatories to a letter sent by Planning Officers Society Wales to Welsh ministers and the government’s phosphates oversight group in December.

This letter emphasised the significance of these issues and the effects they are having on development proposals and the determination of planning applications across Wales.

It requested that the administration give “urgent consideration” to offering leadership, support, and advice on the “very significant problems” facing planning authorities.

Image credit | Shutterstock

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