The Committee considered the Service Lead – Planning Strategy and Development Management’s report outlining the concerns raised by Natural England in the Local Plan about the declining water quality from excess phosphates in the river which was mostly caused from agricultural run-off and sewage discharge within the catchment area.
The proposed Management Plan would address these issues which included a methodology for calculating the impacts and potential mitigation that could be applied to address these issues.
The Service Lead – Planning Strategy and Development Management summarised the mitigation work and Members noted the three different options that were hoped to reduce the amount of discharge into the watercourse which included on-site sewage treatment plants, the creation of wetlands and tree planting measures in the catchment area and changes in agricultural practices to reduce run-off.
Comments made by Non-Committee Members included:
· Concerns raised about the impact on the environment of the river and attention was drawn to para. 4.3 addressing the need for a significant reduction on the phosphate levels. A BBC report highlighted a catastrophic decline in freshwater fish from our rivers as a result of pollution and concerns were raised about which fish and other creatures would be next;
· All our watercourses in this area are heavily polluted;
· The River Axe is important for the Seaton Wetlands. It is a major watercourse with a lot of tributaries and we could do a lot to learn and to improve the quality;
· Concerns raised that the pollution could have potential impacts downstream;
The Service Lead – Planning Strategy and Development Management agreed with the comments made and said it was the council’s primary concern from a planning authority perspective that developments that were granted permission should not make the situation worse and that the council should be trying to improve the situation beyond that but can only within our remit.
The Service Lead – Planning Strategy and Development Management highlighted there was a wider area of work ongoing to help improve the quality of the watercourse and Members noted that Natural England and the Environment Agency had provided grants over the last 5-6 years to farmers to help improve their working practices to stop water run-off capturing waste which had already started to see some benefits.
Comments made by Committee Members included:
· Spillages of slurry can be extremely damaging to watercourses and can actually kill a river by completely killing all the fish and vegetation and clarification was sought on whether the council had any powers to enforce this. In response it was advised the Environment Agency and Natural England had the powers to investigate and take action with pollution events.
· Clarification sought on whether there were any other watercourses that had similar issues. In response the Service Lead – Planning Strategy and Development Management advised he was not aware of any other watercourses in the area where this was the case;
· The Council has a moral obligation to reduce and minimise watercourse pollution;
· The need to liaise with adjoining district councils in a meaningful way. In response it was advised that South Somerset and Dorset Councils as well as other agencies had been included in discussions and were aware of the issues;
· Concerns raised that most the nutrients going into the River Axe is from farming and referred to para. 2.16 of the report where it states that agricultural supply stems from the application of fertilizer in the form of manure and slurry on the fields. Farmland needs to play a part in decreasing phosphates;
· A suggestion was made to refer the report to Overview Committee to consider the environmental implications and that a further report should be brought back to Strategic Planning Committee to update Members on the progress in these matters.
· There should be a cost to developers for mitigation against concerns with the local sewage quality so that sewage works can be improved;
· Clarification sought on whether the Rivers Yarty and Coly were suffering with similar concerns as both rivers were tributaries of the River Axe. In response the Service Lead - Planning Strategy and Development Management advised there may be a possibility of high levels of phosphates running through both rivers since they feed into the Axe but wider works would be needed to help understand how much tributaries are affected and what can be done as mitigation;
· A suggestion to write to the MP to raise with the Secretary of State for the Environment to help deal with this extremely serious problem which will get much worse in the long run;
· Clarification sought on whether the East Devon Catchment Partnership had met to discuss this issue and a suggestion to set up a working group as soon as possible. In response the Service Lead - Planning Strategy and Development Management advised as the East Devon Catchment Partnership was made up of partnerships’ already working on trying to improve water quality it did not make sense to set up a further working group. He advised the existing arrangements were sufficient but this would be reviewed as and when the situation progresses.
1. That the Committee notes the work being undertaken at and for the River Axe and endorses the River Axe Nutrient Management Plan as evidence to inform council and partner decisions.
2. That the Committee notes that the report should have specific relevance, as a material consideration, to inform local plan policy making and determination of planning applications.
3. That the Committee refers the report to the Overview Committee for further consideration regarding the alarming environmental implications in the report.
4. That the Committee requires a further urgent report in six months to update on the progress in those matters.