Background to Phosphates

The quality of the natural environment in our area is of a particularly high standard. Parts of the county fall within either the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar catchment whilst a smaller part falls within the River Axe Special Area of Conservation (SAC) catchment.

These protected areas are currently at risk due to excessive levels of phosphates entering our water system.


Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar Site: Affected Catchment Area

You can find the Somerset Levels and Moors SPA Surface Water Catchment Map here.

Individual maps of each catchment area are also available.

The Somerset Levels and Moors is designated as a Ramsar site for its internationally important wetland features. The site is also a Special Protection Area (SPA) underpinned by 12 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The Joint Nature Conservation Committee write that ‘the Somerset Levels and Moors is one of the largest and richest areas of traditionally managed wet grassland and fen habitats in lowland UK.

On 17 August 2020 the former Somerset Councils received a letter from Natural England about the high levels of phosphates in the Somerset Levels and Moors. Later, in March 2022 the former Somerset West and Taunton Council, South Somerset District Council and Somerset County Council received similar letters relating to high levels of phosphates in the River Axe.

Following the court Judgement (known as Dutch N), Natural England advised the former councils that they must complete a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA). This should be done before deciding on a planning application that may lead to additional phosphate within the catchment. This is following the unfavourable condition of the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar Site and later the River Axe SAC.

The types of development affected by this advice from Natural England, and subject to an HRA to assess the impact of phosphates, include:

  • New residential units – including tourist accommodation, gypsy sites /pitches
  • Commercial developments – where overnight accommodation is provided
  • Agricultural Development – additional barns, slurry stores etc. where it is likely to lead to an increase in herd size
  • Anaerobic Digesters
  • Possibly some tourism attractions
  • Within the River Axe SAC catchment development undertaken through the “prior approval” decision-making process under the General Permitted Development Order (2015)

Since receipt of Natural England’s letter, Somerset Council is working hard to minimise delay and uncertainty in regards to planning applications.

This work includes a county-wide nutrient strategy. This is used to identify both short term solutions to help clear the current backlog of planning permissions and longer-term solutions to address the existing and future growth commitments.

Last reviewed: February 13, 2024 by Daniel

Next review due: August 13, 2024

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