A plea by the leaders of all four district councils in Somerset to be exempt from providing a five-year housing land supply plan has been rejected by the Housing Minister Christopher Pincher.

The councils are facing a planning crisis as nearly 800 applications have had to be halted because of concerns over phosphate levels.

Mr Pincher said: “I note the concerns you raise about meeting the five-year housing land supply under the current circumstances. However, it is important to keep the planning system moving to enable it to play its full part in the economic recovery to come.”

Councils are obliged to have a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites according to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Failure to comply leaves them vulnerable to speculative applications by landowners and developers.

Phosphates are generating significant disruption to the planning process for sites within the catchment area of the Somerset Levels and Moors (a wide area encompassing Wells Chard and Wiveliscombe).  

Residential development can increase phosphate levels in an area and Natural England has identified a potential problem with development in the legally protected habitats of the Somerset Levels and Moors. Sensitive ecosystems in the area are threatened by any increase in phosphates as a result of development.

The Somerset Levels and Moors are protected by both the Habitat Regulations Act 2017 and the Ramsar Convention, an international law which recognises and protects areas of wetlands for future generations.

Following a landmark court case, Natural England wrote to Somerset’s four district councils in October 2020, raising concerns over the high levels of phosphates detected on the Levels and Moors.

As a result developers must look at ways phosphate levels can be mitigated on site or elsewhere within the catchment area. The councils have come up with a “phosphate calculator” to assist developers.

However this is a laborious process. The under pressure councils will struggle to approve planning applications for housing in a timely fashion, hence the request to be exempt from the housing supply requirement.

Claire Alers-Hankey, Partner in the Development Land and Planning Department at Greenslade Taylor Hunt, said: “Inevitably, local planning authorities will not be able to evidence a five year land supply, which opens up opportunities for development on unallocated sites and sites on the edge of settlements.”

To discuss the implications of this ruling please contact the experienced team at Greenslade Taylor Hunt on 01823 334466 or email landplanning.taunton@gth.net