Sewage, phosphates and the housing crisis in Somerset

Photo by Adam Cli, Wikimedia Commons

People understand sewage. It stinks. So does the system that has allowed privatised water companies to make huge profits while failing to upgrade our sewage treatment system. Over the last eleven years the companies have paid out £16.8 billion in dividends while sewage discharges continue to be unacceptably high.

Graphic pictures of raw sewage spilling into rivers and onto our beaches has fuelled rising public anger. The response of the water companies so far suggests that they clearly don’t understand the public mood. Offering to increase our bills while still extracting high levels of profit has not gone down well and, one hopes, should result in further pressure for reform.

Less well understood is the role of phosphates. Phosphates in our water courses come from sewage along with other sources such as intensive agriculture.  Phosphates are a fertiliser and used in the right quantities are beneficial. They help things grow. Dumped into our streams and rivers however they help the wrong things grow and cause serious environmental damage.

This form of pollution is particularly serious in Somerset because of the impact on the Somerset Levels. The area contains fragile wetlands of international importance. They are, in many ways, a success story for conservation as large areas have been designated as SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) and the restoration of old peat workings has created new habitats. This complex of reserves and protected areas, now designated as one of the new ‘super nature reserves’, has boosted the population of rare breeding birds such as the bittern and seen the reintroduction of species once extinct in Britain like the crane and the great egret.

All this is under threat from pollution. The condition of every SSSI on the Levels has been described by Natural England as ‘Unfavourable – declining’. That is the worst condition other than ‘destroyed’.  We have written about this before – here is an excellent piece by Tony Whitehead from two years ago – but sadly little has changed.

Source: Somerset Council website

Less well understood even than phosphates is the impact of the phosphates crisis on housing. Though the inaction of the UK government is shameful, it is still bound by international law and Somerset’s wetlands are so important that they are protected under the Ramsar Convention. A ruling in the Dutch Courts, the so-called ‘Dutch N case’, led Natural England to write to Somerset planning authorities requiring them to ensure that new developments did not add to the level of phosphates being discharged into the levels. This effectively put a stop to new housing development across large areas of the county. It is suggested that applications for as many as 18,000 new homes have been put on hold.

What is good news for the Levels is seriously bad news for those needing decent housing and bad news for local authorities required to plan housing supply. Councils that do not build 75 per cent of the homes specified by central government become subject to a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’, which substantially reduces their powers to influence developers’ plans. It’s bad legislation since councils can’t force developers to build the homes for which they have already been given planning permission. It’s even worse when the homes can’t be built because of a government directive.

Somerset Council has this week approved a nutrient credit scheme for the catchment area of the River Brue which it hopes will allow some development to take place. It would allow the impact of new housing in an area to be offset by creating new wetlands or woodland elsewhere within the catchment. Housebuilders could pay landowners to provide areas where natural processes act to reduce phosphates in water and in the soil.

It’s an imaginative approach but the details are complex, and it only applies to smaller scale developers. At best it could mean that the pollution problem gets no worse; in the worst case the planned level of phosphate mitigation will take years to achieve. Some environmental bodies are therefore arguing that the requirement on developers should be to show nutrient negativity rather than neutrality.

None of this reflects well on the UK government. It was only forced into action by an international treaty. Its response has been slow, and it continues to cut back on agencies like Natural England and the Environment Agency who can help inform policy and enforce compliance. New targets for the water companies to clean up their act are set well in the future and the regulator, Ofwat, has proved ineffective at holding them to account.

We need urgent action to restore the quality of our streams, rivers and wetlands. We shouldn’t have to choose between homes for people and homes for wildlife.

Join us on Zoom on June 29 at 20:00 to watch the short film, ‘Phosphates: too much of a good thing’ which looks at their impact on nature and communities on the Somerset Levels.

This will be followed by a Q&A session with the film’s makers, Phil Shepherd and John Potter, and experts Dr Len Fisher, Honorary Science Research Fellow, University of Bristol and Penny Johnes FRSB, Professor of Biogeochemistry, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. 

This promises to be an informative and thought-provoking evening on a subject which offers scope for discussion on many topical issues, including the role of the Environment Agency and the regulator, the future of farming and the housing crisis. 

You can register for free tickets here. If more than one of you will be watching from the same computer, please just book one ticket.