Phosphate and development: signs of relief?

Good news from one planning authority suggests light at the end of the tunnel for frozen planning consent applications: but this might have a sting in the tail for agriculture.
Agricultural run off, Wales

Signs of a more positive mind-set to the moratorium on planning driven by the river pollution crisis may be appearing in one Welsh local authority under pressure to permit much-needed development. Frozen consents could be coming out of limbo, however heavy investment by a water company leaves a sting in the tail for agriculture – exposed as the main culprit. CLA Cymru’s Charles de Winton explains.

Distant, faint and flickering it may be, but we may see light at the end of the tunnel re the freeze on planning owing to phosphate pollution in our rivers. A briefing from a leading local authority tells us that intense investment to improve water treatment infrastructure is to be made. Consequently, much needed housing development is set to go ahead in a major Special Area of Conservation (SAC). This could set a precedent: other authorities may follow. The briefing comes from a twin SAC catchment area which is not only highly sensitive, but significantly, the briefing has been produced by the local authority planning department, no less.

Let’s recall that the planning moratorium emerged when it became clear that improving water quality through Nutrient Management Plans wouldn’t be sufficient to do the job. In 2021 Natural Resources Wales (NRW) issued planning guidance that development proposals could only be granted planning permission if they result in a neutral impact or improvement in phosphate levels: “neutrality or betterment.” It’s stymied many good projects and, of course, placed a huge obstacle in the way for Welsh Government house-building targets. The impact of this has been (amongst other controversial policies), the attack on second homes and holiday accommodation.


The paper from Monmouthshire County Council focuses on the implications on development proposals and its’ Replacement Local Development Plan, (RLDP). The county is among those experiencing the most pressure to relieve pressure on affordable housing-stock. Here prices have soared as commuting to Bristol became more affordable when the charge on the Prince of Wales Bridge (Second Severn Crossing) was dropped, as a sought-after location for home-workers, and as the South Wales metro proposal is set to improve public transport.

The brief specifies a break-through in new strategic site allocations for between 250-300 homes in the primary settlement of Monmouth. This is in addition to three legacy sites of between 275-290 new homes which previously had planning consent but have been in phosphate limbo. These homes, the paper says, will all form part of the county’s housing requirement of 5,400 homes. All the sites need to be 50% affordable housing.

Monmouthshire’s planning issue has been influenced by the two SAC river catchments in the county: the Usk and the Wye. The brief refers to the higher reaches of the two rivers in Powys and Herefordshire respectively. This raises questions about the attitude of the planning authorities in these counties and those affected by the seven other SAC river catchments in all parts of Wales: the Cleddau, Eden, Gwyrfai, Teifi, Tywi, Glaslyn and the Dee.

So what’s changed?

Since the moratorium was introduced, Monmouthshire County Council has been working with a range of organisations to work out solutions: NRW, Dŵr Cymru (Welsh Water), Welsh Government, other councils in both England and Wales, environmental groups, developers, farmers and others. This February Dŵr Cymru committed to investing a £60m on top of its’ £100m existing budget to reduce phosphate from Waste-water Treatment Works (WwTW) discharges. This is to be invested in treatment infrastructure improving outfall into both the Usk and the Wye. These improvements are subject to design and regulatory approval, but should be complete by March 2025. This has led the welsh government to endorse new housing allocations in the relevant areas removing what the brief calls a “spatial constraint.”

A sting-in-the-tail for farming

Good news this may be. However Dŵr Cymru’s work only addresses phosphate pollution from their activities. I’m concerned that it leaves agriculture exposed. As things stand the water company’s analysis (quoted in the brief) apportions to farming as much as 67% and 72% phosphate in the Usk and Wye respectively. The water infrastructure improvements should significantly reduce the 21% and 23% apportionment to WwTW – and (even) greater attention will be paid by government on agriculture. The brief accepts that phosphate naturally occurs in soil and the rivers – and more effort will go into flood alleviation and control of run-off. However, the part played by the agricultural pollution regulations on upstream livestock management and intensive poultry units is likely to come under even greater scrutiny.

Reducing the impact of phosphates from agriculture is a priority for both the Welsh and UK Governments. In Wales the introduction of the Wales-wide pollution regulations has established a range of measures that all farms must undertake to reduce the amount of excess nutrients entering our watercourses. We - CLA Cymru - are continuing to lobby Welsh Government to maximise the support for farmers to make the infrastructure changes required as part of the regulations. It must be said there cannot be a blame-game around water quality if we want the clean streams and rivers future generations deserve. Every sector has a role to play- the majority of farmers have simply been following the regulations laid out by policy makers over decades, and it is now incumbent on these same policy makers alongside the supply chain to provide the support, guidance and incentives to help farmers make the changes required.

Key contact:

Charles de Winton
Charles de Winton Rural Surveyor, CLA Cymru