New development on River Axe to be halted

Natural England’s advice, issued last month, says new developments in the River Axe catchment area should be ‘nutrient neutral,’ effectively putting the brakes on any new properties in the area.

Do the right thing and stop killing the river or carry on with the Old Guard  “Build, build, build” philosophy? Owl thinks it’s a “no brainer” for those with brains. See what Old Guard and New Guard councillors say below.

Will East Devon MPs Neil Parish and Simon Jupp cooperate with EDDC and lobby to ensure the Environment Agency has sufficient funds to enforce environment protection? Remember both voted against the Lords recent proposals to toughen legal duties on sewage discharges. – Owl

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Developers have a ‘moral obligation not to ravage and rape East Devon, kill our rivers, kill our fields and our environment,’ says the deputy leader of East Devon District Council (EDDC).

Councillor Paul Hayward (Independent East Devon Alliance and Democratic Alliance Group, Yarty) made the statement at a meeting of EDDC’s strategic planning committee following stringent new advice from Natural England to clean up the River Axe.   

Natural England’s advice, issued last month, says new developments in the River Axe catchment area should be ‘nutrient neutral,’ effectively putting the brakes on any new properties in the area.

Though nutrients may not sound bad, they include nitrogen and phosphate which are used to speed plant growth. The term also refers to waste from septic tanks, livestock, arable farming and industrial processes.

These nutrients are being dumped into rivers across the country, including the River Axe, which is  a ‘Special Area of Conservation.’

Now 70 local authorities around the county have been issued with advice from Natural England to clean up their rivers and waterways, including EDDC.

Though only advice, the announcement effectively halts development near the River Axe until the council puts a plan in place to mitigate nutrients going into the river as a result of any new building. It will take time to put such mitigation in place.

“Our understanding is that it’s nigh-on impossible to provide adequate mitigation on the sites themselves,” said Ed Freeman, the council’s service lead for planning strategy and development management.

According to senior officers, the creation of a mitigation strategy will take around two years. They say it should be compatible with the council’s local plan, in which EDDC outlines its strategy to meet housing targets, including affordable housing, over more than a decade.

Mitigation efforts need to be long term and will probably involve natural solutions such as planting forests and reed bed systems, alongside new wetland areas. 

It could be that EDDC puts these systems in place and then charges developers to help pay for them, similar to strategies used previously to help improve River Exe and the Pebblebed Heaths near Budleigh Salterton. 

Mitigating the nutrient problem could also mean improving sewage networks. This would require further discussion with private water company South West Water, which was responsible for 42,000 sewage discharges into Devon’s rivers and waterways in 2020 alone.

It may also require changes to land use, including changing farming practices and taking land out of intensive livestock production – a move likely to be unpopular with farmers.

Up to 70 per cent of nutrient waste going into UK rivers comes from farming. The rest is from wastewater and sewage from residential buildings and businesses.

Councillor Philip Skinner (Conservative, Tale Vale), who is a  farmer himself, is wary of the plans.  At the council’s strategic planning committee, he argued that if Natural England’s advice was followed on other rivers around East Devon, it would ‘more or less shut us down from developing anything at all anywhere’.

He added: “It’s a balancing act. Farmers are the biggest part of this. We are going to have to work with farmers, but at the same time we are going to have to do something.”

Conservative councillor Andrew Moulding, who represents Axminster, added: “This could potentially lead to the stagnation of all my town’s future and I am desperately concerned about this.”

Cllr Paul Hayward issued a stark counter, he said: “Ultimately what we’re faced with is killing a river. This is a wake-up call.

“It’s an opportunity for us to do the right thing for the environment. 

“Yes, you can’t expect the farming community to change overnight – but we’re not expecting them to. We’re asking them to work with us, work with other districts and other planning authorities to come up with a solution to stop us from destroying watercourses. 

“Ultimately if we don’t the rivers will die and there won’t be any trout or salmon.”

There is a possibility that planning applications that already have outline planning permission may have to be reassessed under habitat regulations at the ‘reserved matters’ stage. Twenty-eight current planning applications may be affected. 

The council will contact those who may need to do more to reach the new ‘nutrient neutral’ requirements. It is not thought that house extensions will be affected by the change. 

The advice from Natural England isn’t entirely new. An EDDC report concludes that what is new ‘is the abruptness and directness of the advice that has been issued by Natural England and that we need to more fully understand’.

Some people wonder if the advice is worth the hassle of following if it is, after all, only advice. 

East Devon District Council technically has the right to make its own planning decisions. However, in making decisions, the council must also pay a ‘strong regard’ to environmental issues and the advice of Natural England. 

Commenting on the idea of rejecting Natural England’s advice, Ed Freeman, the council’s planning lead said: “I don’t think that’s a route we want to go down and obviously we want to ensure that we’re not having a detrimental impact in terms of phosphates on the river so I think we have to strongly follow the advice we’ve been given.”

Cllr Hayward added: “I don’t think we can ignore Natural England because I’m sure there absolutely would be legal challenges if we ask for their advice and then blatantly ignore it.”

Leader of the council Paul Arnott (Independent East Devon Alliance and Democratic Alliance Group, Yarty) said that members needed to think of the positive impact of the new proposals on the environment.

He blamed the weakness of the Environment Agency for the river’s current predicament and said it was not being funded enough by the government to deal with blatant breaches of environmental law.

The leader said he would be writing to East Devon’s Conservative MPs, Neil Parish and Simon Jupp, asking them to make sure immediately the agency has sufficient funding to enforce environmental protections. 

It is up to one of the local authorities in the River Axe catchment area to come up with a mitigation strategy. The government will pay £100,000 to help fund the development of such a plan to the local authority which takes on the responsibility.

Though the River Axe also runs through Somerset and the river rises in Dorset, most of it flows through East Devon. As a result, councillors at EDDC voted to request that the council comes up with the strategy. 

Senior officers will now meet with Dorset Council, South Somerset District Council and West Somerset and Taunton Council to formally agree to EDDC to become the leading authority.

Councillor Geoff Jung, portfolio holder for coast, country and environment said: “I certainly support the idea that we take the lead in this because we have the most to lose [due to] the lack of development in our area and also the effects of the pollution on the river.” 

Councillor Olly Davey (Green Party and Democratic Alliance Group, Exmouth Town) was keen to see Natural England’s advice as positive, adding: “This is a wake-up call, but we can also look at it as an opportunity. We should be developing low impact housing and low impact farming methods.

“It’s absolutely essential that we get on with the work and if we don’t take on these measures then other rivers could well follow.”

The council says it will be looking into how to reduce and mitigate phosphate pollution and will be publishing reports on the subject in the future.