Somerset Wildlife Trust 'shocked' by plans to end pollution restrictions for new homes

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Somerset Wildlife Trust says changes to legislation surrounding house building have the potential to damage protected areas and threaten biodiversity.

The Somerset Levels are renowned internationally for their wildlife but over the years, water pollution has become an increasing threat to the area's biodiversity and sustainability.

Dr Mark Steer, from the University of the West of England and who has been carrying out water testing on the levels for more than a decade, said: "The Somerset Levels is a biodiversity hotspot.

"It should be the jewel in the crown of the Southwest as far as wildlife goes.

"But we find across lots of the area that actually the life-giving water is polluted to such a level that it can't hold the amount of wildlife that actually it should."

The government announced it planned to scrap certain pollution restrictions, saying it would allow up to 100,000 new homes to be built by 2030 - generating an estimated £18 billion boost to the economy.

The Somerset Levels are home to thousands of species of plants, birds and insects. Credit: ITV News

Currently, new developments are not permitted unless builders can prove their projects are "nutrient neutral" in protected areas.

This rule applies to a number of local authorities including Somerset.

According to Ministers, the changes will have little detrimental impact on the environment.

Dr Steer said: "It wasn't that they had to reduce the amount of pollution, they just had to keep the amount of pollution the same.

"So we weren't actually making anything better, we were just stopping it getting worse.

"And what we're worried about here is that with the scrapping of this policy, that we will start to see this amazing area here start losing even more wildlife than it has done over the past hundred years."

Georgia Stokes, CEO of Somerset Wildlife Trust, said: "We are very, very concerned about this policy and really quite shocked I think that it's come about, because we've had multiple promises from the government over this year to the House of Commons and the Houses of Lords that they would not weaken environmental protections.

Georgie Stokes, CEO of Somerset Wildlife Trust, says the charity is very concerned by the changes. Credit: ITV News

"But this change in policy absolutely will be weakening the environmental protections on some of our most protected sites."

Georgia says the changes would also leave the public having to foot the bill of cleaning up any added pollution.

She added: "By removing the 'polluter pays' principle, what we're actually doing is making the taxpayer pay instead of the house builders and the developers.

"We will still need to take action because we still have too high nutrient loads in places like the Somerset levels. But it's not exclusively here, obviously there are places all over the country where nitrates and phosphates are too high."

In 2021 phosphate levels in the Somerset Levels were found to be three times higher than they should be, causing biological harm and producing algae and duckweed that is harmful to wildlife.

Ditches and waterways are characteristic of the Somerset Levels. Credit: ITV News

This lead to Natural England downgrading all Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) on the Somerset Levels and Moors to 'unfavourable declining'.

There are several sources of the pollution, including agricultural activity and domestic use, but there are concerns that changes to the law surrounding housebuilding would make matters worse.

In a statement, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said: "The move comes alongside new environmental measures that will tackle pollution at source and restore habitats.

"This includes significantly expanding investment in and evolving the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme run by Natural England, doubling investment to £280m to ensure it is sufficient to offset the very small amount of additional nutrient discharge attributable to up to 100,000 homes between now and 2030."