Guide Phosphates on the River Axe

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1. Nutrient Neutrality in East Devon


In March 2022, Natural England (NE) issued advice to East Devon District Council (EDDC) about phosphates in the River Axe. The River Axe Special Area of Conservation (SAC) catchment has also been designated as sensitive under section 96C of the Water Industry Act. This is due to the habitat site (River Axe SAC) being in an unfavourable condition because of phosphorus pollution in the water. 

Following the Dutch Nitrogen Case which ruled that where a site is failing to achieve condition due to pollution, the potential for a new development to add to the nutrient load is "necessarily limited". Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) sites are internationally important areas defined by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and given special protection under the European Union's Habitats Directive, which was transposed into UK law by the The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. This was updated by the Conservation of Habitats and Species (Amendment)(EU Exit) Regulations 2019 

As such, Natural England's view is that any development proposal that adds phosphate into the catchment of internationally important sites, such as the River Axe SAC, is likely to have a significant effect. Proposed developments likely to affect European Sites should be subject to Habitats Regulations Assessment to assess the Likely Significant Effect on the SAC. Application within the River Axe catchment will have a Likely Effect and will require an Appropriate Assessment to assess the implications of the proposal on the designated site.  

Competent authorities, including Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) must assess the environmental impact of planning applications and local plans which may affect these sites. LPAs can only approve development if they are certain that it will not have an adverse effect on the site. 

Nutrient pollution is a big environmental issue for many of our most important places for nature in England. In freshwater habitats and estuaries, increased levels of nutrients (especially nitrogen and phosphorus) can speed up the growth of certain plants, impacting wildlife. This is called ‘eutrophication’ and it is damaging protected sites. As such, some sites are classified as being in ‘unfavourable condition’. 

Development achieves nutrient neutrality when the nutrient load created through additional wastewater (including surface water) from the development is mitigated. By designing development alongside suitable mitigation measures, additional nutrient loads can often be avoided or mitigated. This approach is called ‘nutrient neutrality’. It essentially allows developments to be permitted without impacting on the condition of protected sites. 

Nutrient neutrality and planning applications

This page is the 'location' of the most recent phosphate budget calculator that must be used to support planning submissions. Old/previous versions must not be used and any submission supported by other versions will be returned.  The calculator can help identify whether: 

  • a proposal is likely to add to the nutrient load within the catchment and need mitigation 
  • the development is nutrient neutral

This page also contains: 

  • information to check if this issue affects your site 
  • help with using the calculator 
  • next steps and validation requirements 
  • small scale thresholds and nutrient neutrality principles guidelines 

Nutrient neutrality and planning applications 

Government and Natural England advice

You can find guidance from the Government and Natural England on this page. 

Government and Natural England advice 

Types of development and applications affected

You can find out more on this page about:  

  • development and application types affected by nutrient neutrality 
  • planning conditions and appropriate assessments 
  • how it affects minor agricultural development 
  • undertaking permitted development works 
  • refusals and withdrawals 
  • grampian conditions 
  • extended outline consents 

Types of development and applications affected  

Draft River Axe phosphate mitigation strategy and policy

East Devon District Council commissioned a draft solutions mitigation report in 2023, with a draft supplied in early 2024.  The report is supported by a bespoke nutrient budget calculator for the River Axe catchment. The solutions report and nutrient budget calculator are yet to be formally adopted.  

Until such time the nutrient budget calculator has been adopted any planning submission and HRA must use the most up to date nutrient budget calculator published by Natural England.  

Draft River Axe phosphates mitigation strategy and policy