Nutrient neutrality and the HBC Warblington Farm ‘initiative’.

While we welcome a positive news story for Havant, we should put today’s press release from Havant Borough Council into a broader context and in doing so perhaps remove some of the political spin. (To read the original press release from DEFRA et al, from which most of the text of the HBC press release has clearly been taken, look here.)

The issue of nutrient neutrality has been around since pre-Covid times, first discussed here after a Havant Borough Council meeting which we attended in January and highlighted by discussions surrounding the Campdown development planning application.

Since we all went into lockdown in March, Havant Borough Council have been scurrying around behind the scenes (and mostly under the covers) trying to find a way around the safeguards of the EU Habitats Directive while fobbing us off with an endearingly patronising video to explain the issue:

If that didn’t make everything crystal clear and explain why Havant Borough Council are taking over the lease on Warblington Farm, let’s have another go. It really isn’t quite as simple as they’d have you believe.

The serious issue at hand is the state of health of the Solent, a large estuarine system internationally recognised for its marine habitats. With increasing flows of nutrients into the Solent, the balance of the organisms inhabiting the Solent is upset, with increased algal growth depleting dissolved oxygen and killing the marine life on which the wild bird population depends.

Several rivers flow directly into the Solent, notably the Medina, Yar and Newtown rivers on the Island side and the Lymington, Beaulieu and Meon on the mainland. Other rivers and streams flow indirectly into the Solent through the four harbours, including the Test and the Itchen. Between them these water courses drain a large land area around the Solent, carrying significant volumes of nutrients, including nitrates from farmland, treated waste water from housing and industrial development, and surface water runoff, some of which, for example from roads, carries additional pollutants.

In August, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT) issued a ten page briefing document which gives a reasonably clear explanation of the issue and the need for mitigation. Take the link to open the document in a new tab in your browser and do take the time to study it.

The purchase by HIWWT of Little Duxmore Farm on the Isle of Wight as a project to take it out of ‘intensive’ agricultural use and return it to the wild, seems on the face of it to be a neat idea. By removing the farm’s use of nitrate fertilizer from the equation and selling ‘nitrate credits’ on to Fareham Borough Council’s developers, it’s a ‘win win’ situation for all.

Or is it? Certainly it is for HIWWT who, swallowing their principles, stand to gain sales of £2M worth of ‘nitrate credits’ from their £1M investment in the farm. Certainly for the housing developers who get to move ahead with their development projects and certainly for Fareham Borough Council who now have the ability to meet more of their central government imposed housing numbers.

So how does this relate to Havant? Havant Borough Council’s action in taking over the lease of Warblington Farm from Henry Young provides them with the same magic money tree. The nitrate credits theoretically released by rewilding Warblington farm will enable HBC to sell them on to the likes of Persimmon Homes who are desperately keen to get on with the Campdown development.

The big loser in this game, sadly, is the very wildlife around the Solent that the EU Habitats Directive and the ‘Dutch Case’ set out to protect. Why? Because the nitrates being released into the ground from agricultural land take years or decades to finally leach through into the watercourses. While the objective of ‘re-wilding’ farmland is admirable, the benefits certainly won’t be seen in our lifetime. What will be seen in our lifetime, however, is the impact of the additional housing development which will now move relentlessly ahead, unchecked. The problem for the Solent and its wildlife will get worse, not better, for the foreseeable future.

The Solent is a uniquely valuable waterway, not just for its wildlife but to the communities that live around its shores. To safeguard that value, in an ideal world, we need to move beyond nitrate neutrality and actively plan to decrease the nutrient load, appreciating that the Solent area is probably already overdeveloped and overpopulated.

Postscript – September 14th 2020.

We’ve put together a page with references to various external sources which may help with your understanding of the Nitrate Neutrality issue. To check this out, go to havantcivicsociety.uk/nitrates, or just click the link.

North Street Arcade and its nitrate bill

You may have noticed the changes taking place during lock-down at the front of the North Street Arcade site. During the lockdown, the ill-starred Grastar Restaurant unit has been divided into two separate retail units while the former Dominos site has also been refurbished as a retail unit. The new flank walls suggest that the opening into the new flats will remain from North Street as originally planned, but a glance at the revised development plan submitted in May shows three additional retail units inserted into the arcade current entrance.

The net result of this will be that there will be six retail units facing onto North Street, as opposed to the eight retail units currently standing mostly empty around the existing arcade, with 29 flats built behind. It’s not clear what the west facing units on the two floors above the retail units will be used for.

As we explained earlier in the year, planning permission was granted for the original application back in January, conditional upon the imposition of a ‘Grampian Condition’. That committed the developer into the payment of an additional levy for offsetting the nitrogen generated. To see how this works, take a look at the nitrogen budget calculation which was added to the planning application in August. This calculation was generated using the Nitrogen Budget calculator issued by Natural England in June. If you’re able to open MS Office Excel files and are sufficiently curious, you can download the calculator here and play with it yourself. A ‘non-technical’ explanation of the issue and the process can be found in a PDF file accessible to anybody.