Resolving the water-quality issues within the Stodmarsh catchment area; which has placed a moratorium on granting planning consent across the whole of East Kent, is not only placing 40,000 homes in jeopardy but ten’s of thousands construction jobs as well. We understand that developers have had to lay off in excess of 3,000 construction workers since the issue arose in July 2020; and more construction job losses are seriously forecast if the issue is not resolved soon by Southern Water, owned in the offshore tax haven of Jersey.
The issue in a nutshell, is that Stodmarsh is being overloaded in phosphorus and nitrate rich sewage (generated as a result of new development and run off from fertilizer on agricultural land) that encourages the growth of algae blooms that will cover and smother the important plant and invertebrate life that lives in the Stodmarsh catchment area.
The Stour catchment area (pictured), in which Stodmarsh sits, stretches 1,200 square kilometres and is one of the most important water bodies for aquatic-dependent wildlife in the United Kingdom, according to Natural England. In particular, Natural England is worried about the ailing health of the Stodmarsh Special Protection Area (SPA) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC), parts of which are also a national nature reserve. The nature reserve is home to the largest reed bed in the South East of England – one square mile of internationally-important habitat that supports a host of specialised birds and invertebrates including the bittern, marsh harriers and the shining ramshorn snail, which are very rare in Europe.
The Stodmarsh phosphorus and nitrate issue has rumbled on for a year and is seriously affecting East Kent’s housing delivery significantly. We know Natural England has issued advice that the planning authorities should not grant any further planning permission that could worsen water quality in the Stodmarsh catchment area.
In March/April Canterbury City Council (CCC) as the lead Council for all East Kent Councils submitted a letter and draft mitigation strategy to DEFRA and MHCLG, which has been signed by all the Leaders and Chief Executives of Ashford, Canterbury, Dover, Folkestone & Hythe, Maidstone & Thanet Councils. The Ministers have received the letter and CCC is waiting for contact and a meeting to be arranged with all parties.
The Stodmarsh Phosphorus & Nitrate issue is not just an East Kent issue but a growing nationwide problem. The Solent Region has been affected by the nitrate issue. But for the first time we can reveal Natural England has sent out further letters to Councils in Cornwall as well 44 other regions of the UK. It’s now a significant problem, one which has lead to the Environment Agency to appoint a new director of water quality in response to ‘rising public pressure‘ over the state of England’s water, rivers, lakes and coastal waters, highlighted by Environmental Campaigner and Guardian writer, George Monbiot and others, in his Rivercide documentary aired live last week.
What the East Kent Councils have asked government to address is the long-term solution by speeding up the upgrades of the Wastewater treatment works ( WWTW) owned by Southern Water; and how they can secure funding for the upfront works on site and arrangements with landowners for reducing the impact of agricultural use.
We know that East Kent Councils “missed the bus” to get upgrades for a Water Waste Treatment Works (WWTW), so the business as usual approach would see projects assessed in 2024 for delivery by 2029/30.
We understand the Government has asked the Planning Advisory Service to support East Kent Councils to resolve the Stodmarsh Issue. We know three meetings between fourteen organizations have already taken place, as we mentioned in our last blog on this issue. A further meeting was held on the 25th May 2021 to inform East Kent councils about the more detailed elements of the potential schemes in advance of any discussions with Government Ministers.
Meantime, in the background, Canterbury City and Ashford Borough Councils have put on hold up to 25,000 homes between them, have been working jointly on a range of potential local solutions, aiming to get to the point where they can grant lawfully robust planning permission.
Another strand of the work is that Nick Fenton, a previous Managing Director for Ward Homes/Barratt Kent and Chairman of Kent Developers Group (pictured below left), and Brian Horton (right), the Strategic Housing Advisor to the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, have met the Housing Minister pressing the Stodmarsh agenda.
East Kent Councils appear to have accepted developer contributions may be required to fund the strategy, as a solution. However, developers, who don’t want their profit affected, are currently weighing up their legal options to force Southern Water to update the East Kent WWTWs sooner than 2025/30.
Southern Water are responsible for cleaning the rivers in East Kent via their WWTWs
Contributions by developers affect the viability of their schemes and if they have to pay money to Southern Water to update their WWTWs, this would reduce other necessary infrastructure funded by S106/CIL payments. But it doesn’t stop there. The financial burden placed on the developers would mean the developments they want to build out in East Kent would have a serious detrimental affect on social and affordable housing numbers.
Simon Thomas head of planning at CCC, and all other East Kent Councils have asked the government to fund the upgrades to the WWTWs.
The government have appointed a Senior Planning QC to look at the habitat regulations to see what potential changes might be made post Brexit, as the Stodmarsh issue arises from European legislation.
Southern Water is operating within the agreed permit levels; and as such there is no incentive for them upgrade or build new WWTWs. Government needs to persuade them to accelerate the improvements to the WWTWs in East Kent, otherwise the issue will rumble on till 2029/30, when upgrades will come online. If an upgrade to Canterbury’s WWTW, in Sturry, is upgraded sooner by Southern Water, this would achieve a 65% reduction in phosphorus only, leaving the nitrate issue to be dealt with separately. This could buy developers headroom of about 10 years of housing growth.
Many of those involved in the Stodmarsh issue are disappointed about the pace of resolving the issue, as developers have already laid off thousands of construction workers across East Kent due to stalled and stalling developments. Simon Cooper head of planning at CCC has urged the local councils to work more closely with the business community (particularly Roland Cooper of Considine and Nick Fenton), as they can express the issue in a more direct manner to the Government.
We understand Nick Fenton has spoken to the Environment Minister as well and made him aware the situation is very urgent, and a resolution is required as soon as possible. There are ten’s of thousands of jobs in the construction industry in jeopardy, if the Stodmarsh Issue is not resolved soon, plus more than four thousand social and affordable housing could be lost
There are a range of solutions that could be put into a final strategy, and the Leaders and Chief Executives of East Kent Councils are busy pulling together these potential solutions. These potential solutions would provide a little headroom, and developers could start developing their planning.
Council Planners and developers have openly admitted that the issue will inevitably impact the River Medway next, as it too has high Phosphorus and Nitrate issues. This would mean more construction jobs lost and more social and affordable housing not built.
Natural England has made it clear, if upgrades to WWTWs can be put in place sooner than 2025/30, this would ease the restrictions on development. But the ultimate solution to the Stodmarsh issue is for Central Government to persuade Southern Water to upgrade their facilities prior to 2025/30.
Max Tant (pictured), Flood Risk Manager at Kent County Council since 2010, has made it known that an upgrade to the Sturry WWTW, would produce the largest positive change in nutrient levels. But of course Southern Water, owned offshore in Jersey, say there is currently no plan and no money available for this.
Even if the upgrades to the East Kent WWTWs happened tomorrow, this would only mitigate the phosphorous issue, and not the nitrate problem.
East Kent Councils have asked Central Government to forward fund the solution, but the government has not offered that to the Solent Region and therefore it is wise to be mindful of that.
Meanwhile, jobs have been lost, social and affordable housing put on hold and developers do not have the appetite to fund work which should be undertaken by Southern Water, owned in the offshore tax haven of Jersey
The Shepway Vox Team
Journalism for the People NOT the Powerful