Background to Phosphates

Somerset Council is committed to development only taking place if it is sustainable development that includes relevant environmental protections.  The former Councils have previously declared an ecological emergency complementing the climate emergency.

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.

You can find the Somerset Levels and Moors SPA Surface Water Catchment Map here. The key of this map is explained below:

  • The area shaded light blue shows the geographical area originally caught by the NE advice note.
  • The various areas shown in red are the affected Ramsar Sites.
  • Note: following technical work by the LPA’s, the blue area was subsequently amended and reduced in size. This revision was signed off by Natural England.

Within this area various locations are of national and internationally significance for wildlife. Thus, the Somerset Levels and Moors are designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Habitat Regulations 2017 and listed as a Ramsar Site under the Ramsar Convention.

On 17 August 2020 the former councils received a letter from Natural England about the high levels of phosphates in the Somerset Levels and Moors. Subsequently, in March 2022 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.

In light of a court Judgement (known as Dutch N), Natural England advised the former councils that, in light of the unfavourable condition of the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar Site and subsequently the River Axe SAC, before determining a planning application that may give rise to additional phosphates within the catchment, competent authorities should undertake a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA).

The types of development 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 the former Somerset councils worked hard to minimise delay and uncertainty around planning applications following guidance over unacceptable amounts of phosphates in the Somerset Levels and Moors.

This work includes a county-wide nutrient strategy 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: May 25, 2023 by Gemma

Next review due: November 25, 2023

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