Phosphate Pollution in the River Camel and the Implications for New Development

Decoration Decoration

Phosphate pollution in the River Camel Special Area of Conservation causes development disruption

Planner Insight
Policy & Legislation
South West
Author Dan Rogers
Decoration Decoration

Bell Cornwell provides town planning advice to clients right across Cornwall and we are keen to share our experience of current issues affecting planning applications in the area.

Causing increasing concern is the impact of phosphate pollution on the River Camel Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The area is of particular ecological sensitivity being designated due to its populations of Bullhead, Otter and Atlantic Salmon.

Natural England considers the River Camel SAC (and these associated species) to be at risk from the effects of pollution caused by the presence of excessive phosphates in the water. As a result, Cornwall Council has temporarily paused development in the River Camel catchment area. This has important implications for many planning applications because the Council cannot approve new developments unless the applicant can demonstrate they are nutrient neutral. The types of development and associated planning applications affected include:

  • new residential units including:
  • new housing
  • barn conversions
  • tourist accommodation
  • development that supports agricultural intensification
  • anaerobic digesters
  • prior notifications for:
  • agricultural development
  • change of use of office to dwellings
  • barn conversions to dwellings

The SAC catchment area covers 69 sq. km. including land and settlements between Camelford and Tintagel to the north, Bodmin to the south, parts of St Breock downs and between Wadebridge and Egloshayle in the west. A map of the catchment area can be found on the Council website here.

Overcoming the Problem

Faced with a moratorium on approving new development in the affected area, both Cornwall Council and developers are looking at how to overcome the problem.

Clues on possible solutions available may be found by referring to similar experiences in Somerset where the issue of phosphate solution has also arisen. In that area, a number of steps have been taken and it is reasonable to assume that similar measures will be taken up in Cornwall as well.

As part of the measures brought forward in the Somerset area, the authorities introduced a Phosphate Calculator in February 2021, which helps applicants understand the phosphate load associated with their scheme. It also explains the extent of compensatory measures required to ensure new development is phosphate neutral. The calculator has been signed off by Natural England and a similar approach can be expected in Cornwall.

Some applicants are seeking on-site mitigation solutions and interim guidelines to achieve drainage solutions has also been prepared. Small scale schemes can use septic tanks or package treatment plants as their solution to the issue. For larger schemes, on-site solutions have also been delivered, including, for example, a large 100+ dwelling scheme where there was sufficient on-site space to deliver appropriate mitigation.

Grant funding bids have also been made to support the local planning authorities’ work in unlocking the issue. Should the funding bid be successful, this will be used to develop a register for phosphates mitigation opportunities (which will also positively contribute to reducing carbon levels and biodiversity net gain) and all supporting legal documents, such as S106 agreements, to ensure delivery of the identified measures.

A mitigation strategy is also being developed for those unable to offset the environmental impact of their development on site. Applying a cost per dwelling approach may be part of the solution – the local authority applies a tariff that will contribute towards offsetting schemes. This would involve costed ecological projects with credits being made available to purchase so that planning permission can be granted subject to mitigation being delivered.

Dealing with phosphate pollution has created additional complexity to projects involving housing, tourism and agricultural development in Cornwall. However, both Cornwall Council and the wider development industry are learning from the work that is already being undertaken in other parts of the west country. We are therefore hopeful that agreed solutions can come forward in the near future.

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