An amendment to LURB (the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill) has just been defeated in the House of Lords, 203 voting against and 156 voting for. The amendment cannot be reintroduced in the Commons because this Bill is already at the third stage so, for the time being, it is quashed. Michael Gove, the Minister responsible for Levelling Up (and Housing) commented that this defeat “ends the dream of homeownership for thousands of families.”
The amendment was introduced by the Government in an attempt to speed up housing delivery. It is claimed that some thousands of new homes are not being built because of an EU-derived regulation that states that if a housing development would add more wastewater (poo) to the environment, then the developer must pay for mitigation. This means fewer new houses.
This rule has been holding up housing development in the whole Stour catchment area. The river discharges into Stodmarsh Nature Reserve which is an area home to a huge variety of species which need to be conserved. Let us try to understand both sides of this argument. Is it desperate families needing affordable homes against the gadwalls and rare bittern?
The Leader of Ashford Borough Council, Noel Ovenden, told me that hundreds of affordable houses in the current plans will not be built because of these regulations. The developers claim they cannot afford the mitigation costs such as putting in new treatment plants for the site. Or what they would tend to do is pass on the costs to the new house-owner who then pays for an extra sewage charge. The councillor (who was elected for Wye, where the local WWTP is located, so presumably he is familiar with all the arguments about sewage outflow to the river) even said he doubted if sewage is the cause of the eutrophication at Stodmarsh.
Eutrophication occurs when water becomes too full of nitrates and/or phosphates which causes algae bloom which de-oxygenates the water and kills off other life in the water and the environment. He thinks that agricultural run-off is a greater pollutant in the river than wastewater from housing. And, even then, there is some notion that the river does not flow into the Stodmarsh but swings around it. All this needs scientific verification, but that is one side of the argument: developers and councillors keen to build more houses for those desperately waiting to be housed.
The other side of the argument can be seen in recent communications from Kent Wildlife Trust about the Save our Stour campaign. Daniel Wynn, Head of Nature-based Solutions, explains how Kent Wildlife can work with the development companies about excess sewage by investing in the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme. How does this work? The house-building companies would pay Kent Wildlife to purchase low grade farmland which is in the vicinity of Stodmarsh. There is even a map, copyright Katie Fisher, of which land to purchase near Stodmarsh. This land would be managed for biodiversity and carbon-offsetting (by rewilding, tree-planting etc) thus paying back the companies and enabling them to meet targets:
“We manage the land for nature and provide additional income streams back to developers through the stacking of natural capital payments such as biodiversity and carbon credits thus supporting the cost of site purchase and ongoing management and maintenance.”
There is a huge opportunity to work with Kent Wildlife but this will not happen if the government weakens the nutrient-neutrality regulations for new housing developments.
Just how bad is the threat to nature at Stodmarsh? Oxygen is so low in the lakes that fish have been dying. Levels of phosphorous were measured at 1000 µg/l when the target is 49 µg/l. As fish die off, there is less food for birds. Stodmarsh is a Nature Reserve designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Ramsar site (for rare birds) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC). It is a wetland habitat which supports a number of rare water birds, which over-winter or come to the reeds to breed. There are also rare invertebrates like Desmoulin’s whorl snail, a priority species in the UK biodiversity plan.
The damage to Stodmarsh according to Kent Wildlife comes from wastewater treatment plants upstream, runoff from urban and agricultural land, floodwater from tidal events, and recycling nutrients from the lakes. A 2016 paper by Natural England (hark the science, councillor) attributes 50–80% of the total phosphorous concentration in the river to wastewater treatment works upstream. This is why the entire catchment area has been banned from new housing since 2018 when the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that according to the EU regulation no new housing development would be permissible unless it could be proved that there would be no LSE (likely significant effect) on the downstream designated site.
I still don’t quite understand how the Kent Wildlife wheeze of carbon credits for land rewilded in another place gets around this regulation, but it sounds good giving us both Houses and Nature with the burbling river and the whorl snail. I would rather like more nature-based solutions nearer to home, where it seems almost every available green patch of land within walking distance is about to be built on, such as at Quantock Rd, near Sainsbury’s.