Mrs Rosie Pearson                            WQR0012

Written evidence submitted by Mrs Rosie Pearson

Follow-up submission: NPPF amendments announced

I have already sent a submission.   This is an update, due to a consultation launched on Friday by Government into amendments proposed to the National Planning Policy Framework[1], and running until 27 March.   In the consultation, Government introduces, “a number of environment-related changes, including amendments on flood risk and climate change”

Most significantly, the definition of sustainability gets greater clarity and a real boost, with two changes: the addition of the UN's 17 goals for sustainable development and positive changes to the plan-making paragraph relating to the 'presumption' in favour of development. 

It is very pleasing to see that there is, at last, some recognition of the importance of water quality – UN Goal 6[2] is ‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’

This is momentous because, as anyone who has participated in a local plan examination knows, the definition of sustainability in the NPPF has been weak and non-descript. 

When government said, in 'Planning for the Future' last year that sustainability is well understood, the reaction of most campaigners was to think that sustainability is understood as unsustainable proposals forced through under the NPPF's 'presumption' in favour of development.

Floods receive some helpful attention, too, with a tweak to the wording about steering development away from flooding 'from any source' and a beefed-up paragraph on natural flood management and integrated approaches to flood risk management.

So this is a great step, and gives plan-makers and campaigners alike something to hold on to.

That said, my recommendations in my main submission still apply.

Thank you for running this important inquiry.

My initial submission is below for ease of filing.

Rosie Pearson

 

 

 

Submission to Environmental Audit Committee “Water Quality in Rivers” inquiry

1 January 2021

Water quality in the planning system

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments.   This submission is set out as follows:

 

1.    Introduction

1.1.            My particular area of concern is how the planning system approaches the question of water quality – both in terms of supply (the impact of abstraction on river flow) and pollution (from sewage and urban runoff). 

1.2.            My observation is that local planning policy and policy enforcement are toothless in the face of developers and that local authorities are disinterested, able to pass the buck to water companies.  

1.3.            Water quality is at risk from the ‘build, build, build’ agenda.

1.4.            Therefore, the way water quality is addressed in local plans, planning applications and planning enforcement needs placed high up the agenda in any proposal to improve water quality in rivers. 

1.5.             Here are some East Anglian manifestations of how the planning system fails on water quality grounds:

1.6.             I speak from personal experience, having presented evidence to the Examination in Public of the ‘North Essex Garden Communities’. 

1.7.             I seek to highlight the problem and to present recommendations for how the planning system could protect and improve water quality in our rivers.   Clearly, to solve the East Anglian supply issue, the mooted new reservoir in South Lincolnshire is needed, and to solve the pollution issue investment and stringent enforcement is required. However, in the absence of these in the medium term, I present recommendations for how the planning system can contribute.

1.8.             This submission is of heightened importance as government plans to bring forward sweeping changes to the planning system this spring.

1.9.             As a planning amateur, I was shocked to discover during the preparation and examination of the north Essex local plan that:

1.9.1.        There was no requirement for the planning authorities to present:

1.9.2.        Unachievable assumptions.  That the limited evidence which was presented by the planning authorities to demonstrate their water management strategy did set out the issues starkly but it proposed unrealistic and obviously unachievable mitigations, missing out key areas of water use such as outdoor residential and underplaying employment used. This was unchallenged except by me and one other resident.  The process was about ticking boxes – had an Integrated Water Management Strategy been prepared? Yes.  Tick.   It didn’t seem to matter that what it said was unachievable and that the result was unknown levels of damage to the environment.

1.10.         Inconsistencies. The planning system offers very little protection for rivers and estuaries and is inconsistent.  In East Anglian high growth local plans, water has been dealt with very differently in each situation:

2.    Recommendations

2.1.             Stringent evidence requirements.   There must be a legal requirement for robust and detailed water quality evidence for local plans.  Without evidence, decisions cannot be made.

2.1.1.        Consistency. Clear requirements will iron out inconsistencies.

2.1.2.        Evidence. Local plan evidence bases should include, as a minimum:

2.2.            Rigorous examination.  Evidence must be robustly and consistently examined by the Planning Inspectorate, with adequate time at Examination and the legal requirements for water quality specifically referenced in decision letters and reports

2.2.1.      A note from the Environmental Audit Committee to the Planning Inspectorate urging them to keep water front of mind at all times might be helpful… 

2.2.2.      These are some of the legal tests:

2.2.2.1.              WFD. Is a Plan, Development Plan Document or planning application WFD[6] compliant?

2.2.2.2.              National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF’)[7]. Is a Plan, NPPF compliant?  Relevant paragraphs set out in footnote 6[8]

2.2.2.3.              Sustainability.  Does the Plan meet sustainability targets, based on whatever new Sustainability definition government wheels out in the spring in its housing white paper update?

2.2.2.4.              25-Year Plan[9].   Is a plan compliant with the goals for water of government’s 25-year plan[10]?

2.2.2.5.              Environment Bill[11]. The Environment Bill will set long-term, legally binding targets.   Seven measures to improve stewardship of water have been proposed, in clauses 75-89.[12]  Plans and planning applications should be examined against these targets[13] and planning inspectors should ensure that all plans and planning applications are compliant.

2.3.             Water as a constraint.    Water quality must be recognised as a constraint in the setting of a housing target and in the creation of Local Plans. 

2.3.1.        Deal-breakers. Three elements must be taken into account and must be viewed as a deal-breaker. Housing numbers capped when:

2.3.2.          Mitigation. Any mitigations proposed should have rock solid commitment e.g.

2.3.3.        Inspectors should interrogate proposals in detail and refuse local plan allocations where mitigation is not possible.

3. Can’t we just trust water companies to deliver?

3.1.  The short answer is no. The planning system passes the burden of supplying fresh water and getting rid of waste water safely falls to the water companies, in theory policed by Ofwat and the Environment Agency.

3.2. However, Ofwat admitted last year that the water sector faces profound challenges, not least from climate change and population growth.  The Environment Agency is over-stretched and under-resourced[14].

3.3. Government’s report into the performance of water and sewerage companies in 2019 showed that their performance deteriorated for the second year in a row.

3.4. The sector has now moved further away from the performance expectations for 2015 to 2020 the Environment Agency set out in 2013. Four out of the nine water companies are now rated as poor or requiring improvement, the worst result since 2011.

3.5. The Environment Bill will establish a new public body – the Office for Environmental Protection – as its independent, domestic watchdog.  This is a long way from happening and will likely be limited in resources and scope.

4.    Case Study: North Essex

4.1. Water supply

4.1.1. Council reports for the north Essex new town proposals said that the scale of development posed significant challenges around provision of water supply, waste water services and management of flood risk. “Water resources within Essex are currently subject to significant levels of stress and will continue to be in the future.”    Pressures include high demands, effects of climate change on raw resources, leakage, environmental protection and finite capacity within raw resources.

4.1.2. The Essex chalk aquifer is over-committed, local rivers are already kept flowing by sewage treatment discharges, there are no new reservoirs planned and groundwater and surface water abstraction have been ruled out.

4.2. The sewage problem

4.2.1. CSO’s. The system cannot cope at current levels.  Here are just three of the north Essex sewage overflows in 2019:

4.2.2. We are not protected by our water companies.  Anglian Water is one of the worst performing companies[15].  Anglian Water and Thames Water were responsible for over half of serious pollution incidents, with Anglian Water seeing an increase in 2019, with twelve incidents.

4.3. Evidence and measurement

4.3.1.        No evidence was presented by the local planning authorities to the local plan inspector about the current status of the river Colne.   Nor was there any evidence presented that the Colchester recycling plant could expand to take the waste from 33,000 of the new town houses, especially to the higher standards required for EU sites. The evidence that was presented contained unrealistic and unachievable assumptions.  The impact on the Colne RAMSAR sites was not known.   There was no discussion of urban runoff or impact on water quality at Examination.

4.3.2.        An academic study by Professor Underwood shows that the Colne is a Heavily Modified Water Body, not meeting its DIN Water Framework Directive Status and is base level hypernutrified.   Professor Underwood also found that the sewage treatment works is a major source of phosphate, ammonium and nitrate.  Water quality in the river is threatened by climate change, development and agriculture. The planning authorities were not interested.

4.3.3.        Despite the above, the planning inspector examining the ‘garden communities’ found that, “Plan policies are capable of requiring adequate water supply and waste water treatment capacity to be provided before any dwellings are occupied”.  While policy modifications insisted on by the inspector further to the examination were a welcome step forward, there is little hope that policy will do anything to prevent further deterioration of water quality.

5.    Case study.  Cambridgeshire

Cambridgeshire is an area with high growth pressure, and a vulnerable chalk aquifer.  

5.1. Over-development/over-abstraction

5.1.1. In August 2020 a resident received confirmation from the Environment Agency[16] that: 

5.2. Local Plan: water as a constraint

5.2.1. Stantec’s report for the early stages of the Greater Cambridgeshire local plan summarises the scale of the problem:

“For water supply, over-abstraction of the Chalk aquifer is having a detrimental impact on environmental conditions, particularly during dry years that may become more frequent due to the impacts of climate change. None of the growth scenarios considered here offer the opportunity to mitigate these existing detrimental impacts. Even without any growth, significant environmental improvements are unlikely to be achievable until major new water supply infrastructure is operational, which is unlikely to occur before the mid-2030s.”

5.2.2. And

“For flood risk, wastewater treatment, and water quality, there are constraints to development due to existing areas of high flood risk, wastewater treatment capacity limitations, and existing diffuse and point source pollution. At minimum, development will need to mitigate any further detrimental impacts on flood risk, wastewater treatment and water quality, to have a neutral impact.”

5.2.3. Stantec concludes that, “The high growth scenario has potential “deal-breaker” constraints due to water supply limitations. The timing of planning, constructing and commissioning new water supply infrastructure is not currently compatible with the Local Plan timescale for the high growth scenario.”

5.3. Policy and enforcement

5.3.1. Northstowe new town.  Planning policy and enforcement ‘on the ground’ is failing.  Cambridgeshire residents have discovered that the Northstowe new town development caused every pond and well in the village to run dry

5.3.2. A resident’s group[17] found that not only was Northstowe’s drainage system not constructed in accordance with the approved plans but also that the plans approved by South Cambridgeshire Council were in part responsible for draining the aquifer. 

5.3.3. The group also found evidence that planning officers had been aware of these issues for years and had failed to take any enforcement action whatsoever despite more than five years of complaints by villagers.

5.3.4. Waterbeach new town.  The SPD for Waterbeach notes, “Given that Waterbeach is located within an area of water stress, a key priority for development will be to promote water efficiency and water-sensitive design”

5.3.6. It also notes that there is only enough supply capacity in the local network to supply c1000 homes.  That will require an extra 4km pipeline, probably at a cost of c£4m, and a new main between Cherry Hinton and Milton.  The developer will have to pay this cost. It does not make clear where water for the remaining 5,500 homes will come from.  A resident[18] tweeted, “No S106 provision. No trigger/date when pipeline needs to be completed by. No protection for Waterbeach to ensure supply.”

5.3.7. The document contains a list of nice to haves (‘should’) to urge, but, notably, not oblige, developers to encourage reduced water use. This includes encouraging the smaller capacity baths I mention above, and is a clear indication that the system is failing to provide sufficient water for development.    It is clear from reading that many of these will be unenforced and unenforceable or developers will claim viability constraints and not deliver.  

5.3.8. Feedback from a resident[19] is that officers routinely ignore their own policies whenever they present “any inconvenience or obstacle for the developers of Waterbeach new town”.  The planning system is allowing developments like this to continue by relying on just such woolly and unenforceable wish lists.   Large-scale developments should not be given permission in water-stressed areas unless new water supply is available. Waterbeach should ring alarm bells for other new towns

 

February 2021

 

 

 


[1] National Planning Policy Framework and National Model Design Code: consultation proposals - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[2] 21252030 Agenda for Sustainable Development web.pdf (un.org)

[3] ied022-inspector-s-post-hearing-letter-to-neas-15th-may-2020 (braintree.gov.uk)

[4] waterbeach-new-town-spd-low-res-feb-2019.pdf (scambs.gov.uk)

[5] Greater Cambridge Local Plan strategic spatial options assessment Integrated Water Management Study Nov2020 (greatercambridgeplanning.org)

[6] Introduction to the EU Water Framework Directive  - Environment - European Commission (europa.eu)

[7] Title (publishing.service.gov.uk)

[8] Para 11ii.  If adverse impacts of meeting Objectively Assessed Housing Need “significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits”, then I believe the housing number should be reduced and/or a specific housing allocation removed;

Para 20: “Strategic policies should set out an overall strategy for the pattern, scale and

quality of development, and make sufficient provision for infrastructure including water supply and wastewater”;

Para 34 notes that developer contributions can be sought for water management;

Para 149, on climate change, notes that plans must proactively plan for water supply;

Para 157.  The Framework sets out that it is “crucial, Local Plans should plan positively for development and infrastructure in the area”;

Para 170e.  “Planning policies and decisions should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by preventing new and existing development from contributing to, being put at unacceptable risk from, or being adversely affected by, unacceptable levels of water pollution. Development should, wherever possible, help to improve local environmental conditions such as air and water quality, taking into account relevant information such as river basin management plans

[9] 25 Year Environment Plan Progress Report April 2019 to March 2020 (publishing.service.gov.uk)

[10] Water specific goals:   To measure and reduce Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in water;

Meeting any long-term legally binding targets for water set out in the Environment Bill;

Contribute towards national legal target for 75% of surface waters to meet the Good Ecological Status standard by 2027 Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC;

Contribute towards reduction of serious pollution incidents to water in England;

Contribute towards increasing the proportion of water bodies with enough water to support environmental standards to 90% for surface water bodies and 77% for groundwater bodies by 2021;

Contribute towards Climate Change Adaptation goal: Clean and Plentiful Water.

[11] 19 August 2020: Environment Bill - environmental targets - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[12] 10 March 2020: Water factsheet (part 5) - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[13] Note that the targets under consideration in the Environment Bill do not include road or other urban run-off and this seems to be a key omission

[14] We don’t have the money to beat polluters, Environment Agency admits | News | The Times

[15] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/921087/Water_and_sewerage_companies_in_England_environmental_performance_summary_graphic_for_2019.pdf

[16] https://twitter.com/MonicaHone/status/1291720198312132615?s=20

[17] https://twitter.com/FewsLane/status/1324685596464394241?s=20

[18] https://twitter.com/Jane45665825/status/1344599066613833729?s=20

[19] https://twitter.com/FewsLane/status/1344585937003696128?s=20