Agenda item

Economy, Employment and Planning: Phosphates update

Members are asked to consider and comment on the update report from the Service Director, Economy, Employment and Planning.


The follow statement was read out to the Committee:


From Dr Andrew Clegg

Statement for Item 5 of the Scrutiny Committee meeting on 17th May 2023


I am a former research chemist who has lived in Martock–on the Parrett–for over 30 years.  I was responsible for guiding Martock Neighbourhood Plan to fruition two years ago, only to find that all new development had been put on phosphate hold rendering the South Somerset Local Plan, and ours with it, ’out of date’.


When I looked into the Ramsar phosphate issue it was immediately clear that there was a dearth of local data and remediating policy was therefore being built on extrapolations from a national modelling system.  As the classical standard phosphate test is a simple and reliable one, I set about, with a small group from several Parrett parishes, planning a detailed mapping of phosphate flow in the Parrett, the Yeo and many of their tributaries.


Our work is supported and funded by the Parish Councils of Haselbury Plucknett, Merriott, Martock, and Huish Episcopi, and by Langport Town Council.  It covers the Parrett and its tributaries from South Perrott to West Sedgemoor and includes the Yeo downstream from Wetmoor.  We regularly share and discuss data with scientists from Natural England and the RSPB (who own much of the West Sedgemoor SSSI) and seek advice from staff of two universities involved in the field.


Conclusions from two years of surveys are now emerging and a number are significantly at odds with some assumptions on which recent Somerset policy is being built. This gives rise to some concerns, one of which is that the current Somerset policy outlined in this agenda item tends to focus on only one aspect of this complex issue to the detriment of others. 


A second concern is that while Parrett catchment nutrient neutrality is, per se, desirable, it is likely to have minimal impact on the Ramsar Moors and distracts attention from the main problem.  The real issue is the very high concentration of phosphate already in the river sediments deposited over the years mainly by our 11 sewage plants not one of which removes phosphate.


We are now publishing our data as it is collected on and through periodic short single-topic reports which we will circulate to the new Councillors, many of whom we are already in contact with.  We look forward to regular future exchanges as the new authority takes on the task of addressing the deteriorating state of the Levels.


In response to these statements officers stated that understanding the evidence was really important in a complex technical field like this and that the Council was working with expert universities in the field as part of that need for objective evidence. They believed that everyone's insight, data and evidence was welcomed and that they would requesting a meeting with Doctor Clegg’s so that they could discuss his research, look at the evidence with him and see what insight that could bring.

The second statement received was then read out:

Statement to Scrutiny for Climate and Place by David Orr 17th May Item 5 phosphate pollution V2


I welcome this new Scrutiny Committee for Climate and Place in our new Somerset Council.


The phosphate and sewage pollution issues are very high up the public agenda and rightly commands public attention and media scrutiny.


Somerset West & Taunton Council have been robust in setting up an innovative model for generating phosphate credits. That “can do” approach now needs to be spread across all the impacted areas in Somerset.


In his statement, Dr Clegg has raised concerns that the computer modelling driving phosphate policy across Somerset may be flawed in some areas specific to river basins in Somerset. More publicly funded research with real world measurements should be commissioned.


Somerset shouldn’t be closed to new homes because “the computer says No”.


On “the polluter pays” basis, are Wessex Water sharing enough of the remediation burden and the costs of phosphate credits? Not just for current pollution, but also for the many years of historic pollution, which has played a significant role in where we find ourselves today.


Somerset, from Saxon times, is the Land of the Summer People. We are known nationally and internationally for our beautiful landscapes of tidal rivers, drains, world-class wetlands and lush pastures, punctuated by hills and ancient isles.

Right now, that lovely, watery landscape is degraded by phosphate and sewage pollution.


There is a backlog of 18,000 new homes and other developments including farms and tourist facilities across Somerset.


We rely on private sector housing developments to provide social housing with little council-owned new housing being built. So, phosphate pollution isn’t just stopping 1st time buyers getting on the housing ladder, but it is limiting social housing and affordable homes. It impacts directly on Somerset’s economy and the key construction sector and all of the ancillary services around that activity.


With this massive backlog for new homes and added housing needs from Hinkley Point C and the coming Gravity development, private rents are soaring. We need to get the new homes backlog falling quickly by removing phosphates from our waterways with urgency and ambition.


This is a perfect opportunity for the new Somerset (super) Council to show community leadership and demonstrate that the costly merger of five councils into one unitary council, can deal with the issues of phosphate and sewage pollution assertively and at pace.


The people of Somerset want to see strong leadership from their new Council.


A Somerset where much-needed new housing is carefully planned for, approved and then actually gets built (!); a Somerset where rivers have safe bathing spots; a Somerset where our precious rivers, drains and wetlands are back in a pristine condition and long before 2050.


The Americans got the first manned mission to the moon in just 9 years. Surely, this Council can set stretching targets with Wessex Water and other stakeholders (including the farming community, Natural England and the water industry regulators) to significantly reduce phosphate pollution by 2025, with large-scale removal by 2035.


That is the challenge that this Committee, all Councillors and our new super Council needs to rise to and meet.


Thank you


The Committee then received a presentation from officers which gave a high-level overview of:

·         Nutrient neutrality and the requirement for new developments to be phosphate neutral - 73 local authorities were affected

·         The Somerset wide progress made to date

·         The Leveling Up & Regeneration Bill which was proposing the upgrading of treatment works

·         The Government’s Nutrient Mitigation Fund

·         A update on phosphate an that phosphates from farming were still an important issue

·         Progress being made in the River Tone catchment area

·         The River Tone Phosphate Credit Scheme

·         The River Brue catchment area

·         The River Parrett catchment area


§  That 85-90% of the phosphates in the rivers was actually from sewage and that it was the water treatment works that needed improving.

§  The Dutch Case related to nitrogen and not to phosphates

§  The focus of efforts appeared to be on mitigation rather than solving the problem.

§  There was a need to create wetlands, where watercourses entered the sites of special scientific interest, in order to filter out the phosphates.

§  The serious impact it was having upon development in the county.


Officers explained that whilst the planning system tried to mitigate the impact of development there was a need to solve the problem.


In response to question they confirmed:

·         The number of propertied that could be developed per phosphate credit varied. It all depended upon which water treatment plant(s) covered that particular site. As a rough guide, the average cost per property in Taunton was approximately £5,500.

·         The problem was unlikely to go away until the Somerset Levels were back in a sustainable condition.

·         A full briefing session on phosphates had been arranged for members later in the month phosphates.

·         Whilst they were hopeful of receiving Government grant funding, they would continue to work with landowners and others to develop schemes.

·         They were currently working with colleagues in East Devon and Dorset, because it also impacted upon the River Axe, as well as other councils more generally, to understand what solutions other people were bringing forward and what innovative ways of working there were.


Cllr C Payne left the meeting.


The Committee then adjourned at 11:46am and re-adjourned at 11:57am.

Supporting documents: