Water Neutrality Causes Development Disruption

28th October 2021

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

Currently causing concern is the latest in a series of development embargos affecting large areas of the South: The Sussex North Water Supply Zone.  This follows hot on the heels of nutrient neutrality issues, just as solutions were beginning to develop to alleviate some of the pressure on housing delivery.

There is now a risk that housing permissions and development in the affected area will grind to halt due to increasing concern that groundwater abstraction is adversely impacting the Arun Valley Special Protection Area, Special Area of Conservation and Ramsar sites. Faced with a moratorium on approving new development in the affected areas, the relevant Councils and developers will have to look at how to overcome the problem, with the onus firmly on applicants to offer mitigation. The districts affected include:

  • Horsham District
  • Crawley District
  • Chichester District
  • South Downs National Park

Applicants will now need to demonstrate that they can deliver water neutrality for their proposals, taking measures to both minimise and offset water use. This will require input from specialist hydrologists to support our planning work. For applications which are not able to do this, the local planning authority are obliged to refuse planning permission as a matter of law, in light of Natural England’s statement.

Developer consortiums may attempt to challenge this issue in the courts; however, the law is very clear that the Natural England directive overrides all other considerations.

Natural England have advised that a water neutrality strategy is required in partnership with all the relevant authorities, which will of course take considerable time. Demonstrating water neutrality will be an uphill task, however, the positive is that a strategy is already evolving and Councils are now advising applicants accordingly.

Crawley Borough Council have stated that those proposals that can demonstrate water neutrality and are able to establish legal obligations to secure water efficiency measures, are able to proceed. However, the absence of a current solution through a collective strategy for the area will inevitably cause substantial delays for both pending and prospective applications – even in cases where recommendation or a positive decision had been likely.

Horsham District Council is voicing their concerns, declaring that their housing targets and forward delivery-rates should be subject to review and reduced, the allocation of strategic sites put on hold and the need for them reconsidered until this issue is resolved.

The affected Councils also face considerable disruption in progressing their new local plans and meeting their significant housing targets. Dealing with this issue will undoubtably create additional complexity to projects involving housing in the affected areas. However, both the affected Councils and the wider development industry have sprung into action and we are therefore hopeful that agreed solutions can come forward in the near future.

The need to demonstrate water neutrality has already caused significant disruption to our clients and the planning applications we are working on in the affected areas. We will continue to monitor the situation via communication with the Councils’, discussions with independent hydrologists who we work with regularly and other stakeholders. We endeavour to keep you, our readers, as well as our existing clients updated as soon as any potential solutions arise.

Principal Planner, Alex Yearsley.

River Arun Water Neutrality Sussex North

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