We have just received advice from Natural England that will have a significant impact upon planning applications and proposals within the catchment of the River Axe.

There is a significant issue with phosphate levels in the River Axe which is having a detrimental impact on wildlife within the River and of particular concern are the areas that are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC). I am writing because we have now received correspondence from Natural England advising that we should no longer grant planning permission for development that would increase the discharge of phosphates into the river. A significant proportion of phosphates in the area come from residential uses and so this means that developments for new dwellings and holiday accommodation whether through new build or conversion should not be permitted unless they can mitigate the phosphate discharge from the development (largely from greywater and waste water from toilets) such that their impact on nutrient levels is neutral. This is also likely to mean that agricultural developments that increase livestock within the catchment should also be considered in this way as they cause similar issues. This also applies to Prior Approvals, Reserve Matters applications and any employment proposals with an on-site living element (such as live/work).

In summary, this applies to the following work streams in the catchment:

  • New residential units (but not annexes) – including holiday and tourist accommodation, gypsy sites/pitches, agricultural workers dwelling;
  • Commercial development – where overnight accommodation is provided;
  • Agricultural development – additional barns, slurry stores etc, where it is likely to lead to an increase in herd size;
  • Prior Notification of agricultural development where, as a result of the development, the herd size may increase. Also prior notifications for change of use to dwellings;
  • Anaerobic Digesters;
  • Reserve matters applications for residential development;
  • Appeals (for schemes including residential and agricultural etc outlined above)
  • This may include Discharge of conditions to the above development types of development but we are unsure of this at present.

We have already been holding some major developments at Axminster pending mitigation measures being in place but this new guidance means that even developments of a single dwelling will have to be refused unless the impacts from phosphates can be fully mitigated. Unfortunately it is very unlikely that individual developments will be able to mitigate their own impacts as on-site measures such as water efficiency measures and grey water recycling will be insufficient in themselves. Large scale strategic mitigation measures will be needed to address the issue. Officers have been working to deliver these measures but identifying projects that deliver mitigation in perpetuity is very challenging. For many years grants have been available from Natural England and the Environment Agency to try and reduce phosphate discharge from farming in the area and I understand that this work continues, however these tend to be short term projects. We have identified a range of similar short term projects through our work, however in order to satisfy the guidance and mitigate for the impacts of new dwellings the mitigation will need to be in place for at least 80 – 120 years.  It is likely that projects such as new wetlands and reed bed systems will need to be created to fulfil this requirement.

The guidance also has implications for plan making both in terms of neighbourhood plans and the local plan which will need to ensure that any allocations for development within the catchment area are appropriately mitigated. The Planning Policy team are looking into this separately.

Alongside the guidance issued by Natural England the government has announced £100k of funding to come to the Axe catchment area to help the delivery of mitigation measures. It is also understood from a meeting last week with South West Water that they are committing resources to addressing these issues as well.  It is hoped that with these additional resources and our own District Ecologist now in post that progress can be made to provide a mitigation strategy for the area which will enable the impacts of development to be mitigated such that planning permissions for dwellings and other phosphate generating uses can be taken forward again in the near future.

A report was presented to Strategic Planning Committee on the 5th April explaining in greater detail the issue and the work that is being undertaken to address it.

I attach for your information the letter and attachments received from Natural England which includes a map of the affected area and further information is available here on the Government website: Nutrient pollution: reducing the impact on protected sites - GOV.UK (

With regard to development, this currently means that we cannot approve any existing applications in the catchment that involve the above bullet-pointed work streams. Such applications are highly likely to be refused until we have mitigation in place. In light of this, you way also wish to hold off submitting applications in the catchment for the foreseeable future.

We are working through the implications of this but in the meantime as this is new to us we would be grateful if you could bear with us until we understand the full implications.

We will hopefully have a fuller understand over the next 10 days and will post updates here on the website.

We must re-iterate however that this is all fairly new to us, quite complicated and as such the above is subject to change as we work through it.

If you have currently have applications submitted with us, we will be in touch to advise if your application is affected by the proposal and what options are available to you. However, as this is new to us, it may be a week or so before we are in a position to advise of the exact implication for each proposal.

We have been working through the implications of Natural England’s letter and can advise of the following.

  • We have taken the decision that the only discharge of conditions that are affected are those related to the submission and approval of foul drainage information. Outside of this, we will continue to discharge conditions within the catchment area identified by Natural England.
  • Whilst we are working to provide mitigation to address the impacts from the development types listed above, this work is likely to take many months, if not in excess of a year. This is due to the complexity of the situation and potential need to purchase land and provide the mitigation upfront that consented development can then contribute towards to mitigate its impacts;
  • We will consider site specific on-site mitigation measures, but experience from other Local Authorities impacted by this is that on-site measures are only possible at a very large scale and therefore for large-scale major applications only;
  • We have appeals with the Inspectorate that are impacted from this and should have the first Inspectorate decisions available in a couple of months that could have an impact on how we move forward – we will provide updates on those on this page as and when available;
  • If you have an application with us that is impacted by this we will be prioritising the issuing of decisions of refusal of planning permission for those applications where there are reasons for refusal in addition to this phosphates matter. For these applications, we need to produce an Appropriate Assessment and consult Natural England on it for 21 days. Following this, we will issue the decision;
  • For applications where the lack of mitigation for the phosphates impact is the only reason for refusal, we will hold these in abeyance whilst we deal with those applications with other reasons for refusal, subject to agreement to an Extension of Time for a further 3 months. If you do not agree to an extension of time, we will move to refusal of permission unless there is suitable mitigation provided. Again we will need to carry out an Appropriate Assessment and consult Natural England for 21 days before we can issue any decision;
  • When we have dealt with the above applications, we will reassess the situation.

We will post more updates as and when we have more information.