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Council agrees initiative to unlock its housing developments from ‘Stodmarsh ban’

Published: 03/07/2024
Stodmarsh lake

Ashford Borough Council has agreed an innovative package of measures designed to satisfy nutrient neutrality rules in the River Stour catchment area, enabling around 1,000 much-needed new homes to be built. 

A report setting out how the authority plans to unlock the development of its own house building programme, plus those of subsidiary companies, was presented to Cabinet in June, with members approving recommendations that will lead to schemes being brought forward.

Councillors were reminded that in July 2020, Natural England (NE) issued advice requiring new housing development in the River Stour catchment to demonstrate ‘nutrient neutrality’. This followed concerns that high levels of phosphates and nitrates in the water were having harmful impacts on the Stodmarsh nature reserve further downstream.

Ashford is not the only borough impacted by the NE directive – many other areas of England are subject to the ruling which has halted many new housing developments across the country. The impact in Ashford has meant that we have been unable to grant planning permission for new housing within the catchment, unless the proposal can show it can achieve ‘nutrient neutrality’.

Councillors were told that as of April 2024, around 3,000 new homes that have a resolution to grant cannot be progressed. The advice is impacting upon the delivery of the South of Ashford Garden Community of 7,000 homes, which is a major point of delivery for our local plan. Included are:

  • Our Affordable Housing Programme which would provide much-needed affordable housing.
  • A Better Choice for Property Ltd’s (our wholly-owned subsidiary company) developments, including those of its own wholly-owned subsidiary A Better Choice for Property Development Ltd. These include Swanton House and Infinity near Ashford town centre.
  • Ashford International Development Company Ltd’s (65% council-owned) scheme at Newtown Works, which includes the levelling-up funded regeneration works.

This equates to around 1,000 homes which the council has an interest in that needs mitigation to proceed. The impacts of the ‘Stodmarsh ban’ has stopped building within the Housing Revenue Account (HRA), which has limited the amount of affordable rented accommodation available. This has led to an increase in temporary accommodation costs and a rise in our housing waiting list.

Our subsidiary company-led developments are on mainly brownfield regeneration schemes and so the stalling of these projects has delayed local regeneration.

Package of measures

In response to the NE directive, we have looked at initiatives to generate the nutrient neutrality mitigation the council needs to enable the 1,000 homes within our schemes to be brought forward. Previously mitigation work has centred around the development of strategic wetlands adjoining the River Stour but these are expensive and complicated to deliver.

Other simpler approaches include a land use change. Land is taken out of cultivation and set aside for less intensive uses, which results in less nutrients being released. We have some small landholdings that have been leased for agricultural uses or land that was farmed which is now no longer in production.

We are looking at the land management of council sites to see if there are ways in which the plan can be amended to enhance nutrient removal or lower the amount of nutrients released. We are working on changes to the land management at Conningbrook Lakes to create small reedbeds and stopping the grazing of the site and turning it to a floodplain meadow for hay production. This measures will help tackle the algae bloom within the lake and provide mitigation credits.

The Victoria Park project has created a small wetland which will provide some benefit and once the design of the scheme at Conningbrook is completed, further work will be done to review our other actively managed land.

Reducing water use is a way of generating mitigation through retrofitting our HRA stock (5,000+ homes). Retrofitting generates phosphorus credits and provides a number of benefits, as it lowers the water use of the property and this will reduce the tenants’ bills, protects boilers, pipe joints and valves, so lowering lifecycle costs. We have appointed Cenergist to retrofit our homes with Control Flow devices. These regulate water flow and stabilise water pressure. The scheme applies to all our properties, not just those in the Stour catchment.

Cenergist Control Flow Device

A Cenergist Control Flow device

The report to Cabinet said that all of these measures will provide a ‘bank’ of mitigation credits which will be sold to the Housing Revenue Account and the council’s subsidiaries, leading to the release of the council’s building programme. Cabinet authorised the Deputy Chief Executive to move the proposals forward and a further report will be presented to Cabinet later in the year.