THE government’s plan to scrap restrictions forcing housebuilders to mitigate the impact of developments on river health has split opinion in Hampshire.

The Test and Itchen Association, which promotes the protection of chalk streams, is “alarmed” by the proposal to change ‘nutrient neutrality’ rules so to boost housing.

In Hampshire, the health of rivers has been damaged by pollution including nitrates and phosphates from agriculture and housing developments.

Hampshire’s waste water systems are struggling to cope with demand.

Romsey politicians have highlighted the complexity of the issue and are calling for clarity, while Winchester’s MP believes it is a plausible solution that will tackle pollution and restore habitats.

READ MORE: Southern Water faces prosecution for pollution in the River Test

Regulations, introduced in 2017, mean developers are obliged to offset or prevent nutrients leaking into local wetlands and waterways in protected areas. But if the proposal goes ahead, the financial burden will shift from housebuilders to taxpayers and pollution will instead be offset by Natural England by creating new wetlands or upgrading existing housing.

Chief executive of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust Debbie Tann said: “We will be opposing these changes in the strongest terms as they undermine key principles that have been in place for decades – i.e. that polluters should pay, and that a precautionary principle should be taken to avoid damage to our most important wildlife sites.

“All polluters must mitigate the pollution they contribute to – and house builders should be no different. Instead of developers paying for the pollution they cause – these changes would see the taxpayer picking up the bill.”

Director of the Test and Itchen Association Jem Dunn said: “The Rivers Test and Itchen are perhaps the two most famous chalk streams in the world. The chalk stream environment is unique, endangered and in need of more protection.

“We are alarmed by this latest government announcement. It seeks to bring changes that allow additional home building in areas where the balance of nutrients in the streams and rivers is already wrong.

“They promise more spending to offset the impact of an added nutrient load and claim that they will make other improvements. We’ve seen all too often, the promised improvements do not materialize.

“Allowing more homes to be connected to antiquated waste water systems that already cannot cope with demand will further harm our precious rivers.

“Where are the water companies going to find the extra water to supply 100,000 new homes? Years of over-abstraction has reduced the flow of the rivers, badly affecting the diverse wildlife that relies on it. They need to think again and protect our environment.”

SEE ALSO: Salmon stocks again on the decline in Hampshire rivers

Winchester MP Steve Brine said: “This is a long-running issue raised with me by businesses, constituents and the current city council leadership; all desperate for a solution to unblock a raft of local small-scale housing developments.

“Through an amendment to the Levelling Up Bill we’ve found a solution but one that comes alongside new environmental measures that will tackle pollution at source and restore habitats.

“The plan is to significantly expand investment, to £280m, in the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme run by Natural England to ensure it is sufficient to offset the very small amount of additional nutrient discharge attributable to some 100,000 new homes in England between now and 2030.
“It will be interesting to see if those who flagged this as a problem to their MP want to compromise and back the plan or take the easy route and play politics with it.”

Romsey MP Caroline Nokes first raised the issue in Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in January 2020. She said: “I know the offset schemes, which included taking land at Roke Manor out of pig production, have worked to an extent. And they have unblocked the planning system and allowed projects, including elderly accommodation, supported living units for disabled people and conversions of disused commercial premises to residential to go ahead.

“It is important to be clear this is not just about volume housebuilders, but also about enabling important but often marginalised sectors of the housing market to thrive. The schemes were not perfect, there is no doubt about that, but I do wonder what this amendment means for them now, and that is not yet clear.

“Living in close proximity to the River Test, we have to do better at improving our waterways. We need to have scrubbers fitted by Southern Water on the Fullerton Sewage Treatment plant for a start and find some long term and sustainable answers to how to solve the problems.”

READ ALSO: Campaign to tackle pollution in Hampshire's chalk streams given new backing

Test Valley cabinet member for housing and environmental health, Cllr Nick Adams-King, said: “This is a hugely complex issue. The government has reacted to a problem created by Natural England which has resulted in a hugely inflexible and expensive process to provide that mitigation. It had resulted blocking homes being built and large areas of farmland being taken out of production.

“We in Test Valley have been tackling this challenge for over five years, longer than most. I support the principle that the ‘polluter pays’, and believe there must be some system to mitigate for nitrates entering the Test and then the Solent. Consequently, we have developed a complex, comprehensive and fair process for dealing with the problem. It’s frustrating the government has ignored that kind of solution, which seems to me to be throwing the 'baby out with the bathwater’.

“The impact is not immediate and will not greatly harm the Test even in the long term. It is the Solent that is at risk and I hope the money to mitigate agricultural nitrate pollution improves the situation more rapidly than the limits placed on new housing.”

The Local Government Association is pleased with the government’s action as they say thousands of new homes are on hold due to river pollution and water level concerns.

LGA environment spokesperson, Cllr Darren Rodwell, said: “The government has acted on our calls for urgent action and funding to address pollution at source. 

“However, short-term local solutions are still needed to address environmental concerns about river pollution. Councils are calling for a doubling down on long-term action to protect rivers by focusing reducing pollution at source.”