The Bell at Boxford – nutrient neutrality, planning conditions and a collaborative approach

The planning application at The Bell in Boxford has been approved, at the second time of asking. The first application earlier this year fell foul of what might be termed an over-abundance of caution on the part of planning officers following the introduction of nutrient neutrality regulations in this part of West Berkshire. The NN phrase is cropping up a lot at present: so before considering the latest, successful, application, let’s have a quick look at nutrient neutrality and why it has caused so many problems for an already slightly creaky planning system.

Nutrient neutrality

“The UK’s rivers are in a mess,” this article from the Architects Journal uncompromisingly said in May 2022. They are “contaminated by a chemical cocktail of sewage and agricultural and road pollution. Only 14 per cent achieve ‘good’ ecological status.” A specific problem is that nitrates and phosphates (which come from a range sources including excrement and fertiliser) are building up in the water system and seriously affecting the natural balance of the fauna and flora the rivers support. DeFRA and Natural England have since 2019 been introducing nutrient neutrality regulations to try to combat this which, in summary, mean that “no new developments will be allowed that lead to higher levels of phosphates and nitrates in waterways.” 74 local authorities are affected by this, 42 of them (including West Berkshire, or part of it) since March when they were, without warning, issued with the new guidelines.

The problem, as many planning authorities including WBC would argue, is that the regulations came with insufficient guidance as to how exactly the new rules could be implemented. Despite the promise of £100,000 for each authority to fund specialist advice, many have found this new world difficult to navigate. The AJ estimates that over 100,000 homes are now being delayed across the country as a result: that’s a third of the slightly fanciful 300,000 homes a year that the government says are needed. Another excellent, and more recent article, this time on the BBC website, estimates that it’s leading to £16bn of lost economic activity in England and Wales.

Let’s not be in any doubt, though – nutrient neutrality is a serious problem. The BBC article, which looks particularly at the River Wye, highlights some shocking instances of pollution and bio-diversity loss. To these can be added countless others from the last few years by people ranging from scientists to surfers. Most now agree on the interconnectedness of the world and how quickly the law of unintended (or unconsidered) consequences can swing into action. We are, in so many unwelcome ways, now reaping the bitter harvest of dramatic changes to our lifestyle which date back little more than two and a bit centuries.

The wrong target?

The nutrient neutrality regulations are therefore important and address a real problem. There is the suspicion, however, that like Liz Truss’ infamous “mini-budget” they are being introduced with poor communication, with too little detail and perhaps with the wrong targets in mind.

There are many reasons why excessive phosphates might end up in our watercourses. The ones I’m aware of are, in no particular order, agricultural run-off, discharges (permitted or otherwise) of raw sewage by water companies, private sewage systems (which are particularly prevalent in rural areas), industrial development and new residential development. The new regulations only really focus on the last of these. This is perhaps the softest target. It’s also easier to stop something happening than it is to fix something that’s working badly. I don’t know what the phosphate pie-chart for these causes, and others I haven’t listed, would look like. I’d be surprised, however, if the latter were the major culprit.

The problem with fixing what’s there is that all the other parts of the system are working more or less as they were designed to: the fact that we now know they should be working in a different way is a separate issue. For centuries, water has run off farmland into rivers or soaked into aquifers but it’s only recently that we’ve been adding fertiliser to it in such quantities. The sewage stations are designed to allow overflows if the alternative is sewage coming up in people’s homes – the problem would be a lot less severe if the sewerage pipes weren’t so cracked that in areas such as this they regularly got flooded with groundwater – but the pumping stations are doing what they were designed for. As for private sewage systems, which range from things like klargesters to other solutions that are little more than cesspits, although these should be maintained (but often aren’t) they fit into the out-of-sight, out-of-mind policy that gave rise to them.

The world could absorb anything we threw at it and for millennia, it did. Now it can’t. The systems we’ve developed are no longer appropriate. In the case of the private sewage connections just in the Lambourn Valley, one WBC councillor I spoke to about this recently said that they suspected there were “loads” of them although it may never to be possible to establish how many nor to enforce any action that can be take against their owners.

Choosing your enemies

In focusing on new residential developments, Natural England and DeFRA have avoided a headlong conflict with farmers and the water companies and avoided a potentially interminable series of investigations into private arrangements. True, they have locked horns with developers – as the slightly surreal recent events at the David Wilson and Taylor Wimpey Homes sites in Shaw Valley in north Newbury showed – but the majority of those affected by any delays in the planning system are small developments such as The Bell at Boxford (you see: I haven’t forgotten that this is where we started, and to which we shall return).

It’s unfortunate that, as a result, it laid the problem at the door of councils’ planning departments. These tend to be cautious, under-staffed and poor at communicating. Although WBC has provided some posts on the subject, including this one, there has been a distinct lack of any tub-thumping statements explaining why this is not its fault. Nor am I aware of any communications that have been sent to those whose applications seem to be stuck in the tunnel. As a result, many people I’ve spoken to think that the delay is caused by WBC. This fits all to well into a familiar trope about its planning system.

Back to the Bell

You can see the details of the recent application here. This was passed, subject to 19 conditions (see the Decision Notice), several of which had numerous sub-clauses. As applications for turning a pub back into a pub are quite rare, I don’t know if these conditions are reasonable in their number or nature. These don’t, however, represent the final word on the matter. What actually gets built and so how many of these are applicable – assuming the developer doesn’t feel so bruised that he decides to abandon the whole scheme – depends on a number of factors. There will be discussions about these, with variations perhaps agreed. The main consideration for both sides will be the calculation of risk. For a developer, it’s a matter of what it feels it can get away with doing in a different way, or later, or not all. For a planning authority, it’s a matter of what it’s prepared to regard as a red line and what it’s prepared to enforce. For both parties, it’s also a matter of what, if it comes to it, can be defended in court.

The conditions on this application seem long and complex but it’s hard to tell if they are typical and consistent with other similar ones. I ask this question of WBC: are they? They also seem to touch on matters, such as the planting schedule, concerning which it’s possible that the applicant has more knowledge than does the planning authority.

I get it that planning conditions need to be imposed to save us all from the worst kind of developers. I also get it it that there are statutory matters, ranging from dealing with surface water to protecting bats, which the planning authority has to insist upon, in writing at least.

The reality though, as with all regulations, is how (or if) these are enforced. Without enforcement – which is, I understand, not a statutory responsibility of a planning authority – the conditions on a decision notice amount to little more than a legal disclaimer: “we asked that these be done,” in other words, “and that’s the end of our responsibility.” Surely its aspirations should be a bit higher than this.

A look at the planning conditions also highlights an omission. David Peacock of the Newbury Society – a tireless advocate for the area’s heritage – suggested that a “full photographic record” be made of the old building prior ro its demolition. This does not feature in the conditions. It seems that the applicant has no problem with this. Perhaps the reason for this is due to what I’m about to suggest.

A collaborative approach

Once the decision has been taken to approve an application, the local planning authority (LPA) needs to decide, as it has done in this case, what conditions are necessary. I’m unclear if these involve any consideration of the past performance of the developer. With a large firm, might the  LPA contact officers in a district where the developer has recently finished a similar scheme and ask what if any problems were encountered? These might help inform what conditions to insist upon, and to enforce, with the current plan.

If the developer is local and has done other work, does the LPA make any effort to contact the relevant parish council/s and ask similar questions? It may be that the developer has, for instance, proved in the past awful at using the specified roof tiles or abiding by hours of work but was an absolute genius with tree-planting. Might this not influence what conditions were applied and which should particularly carefully enforced? Such a post-decision, pre-condition, consultation would help the the parish council – which after all represents the people who’ll have to live with the decision and all its details – feel that it’s had some real influence on the process. It also might lead to a better result, on nutrient neutrality or anything else.

Nor do I know if LPAs from time to time look back at applications which have – through poor decisions, unenforced conditions or whatever – produced results widely felt to have been at odds with what was intended. I’m sure every parish in every district could provide examples. Does any LPA ever look at these, not in a spirit of recrimination and litigation but with a view to improving how things are done in the future? We’re it to do so, might it ask what might it have done differently to have got a better result?

The final word from Einstein (who better?)

I’m unsure if any of these three approaches are taken, in West Berkshire or anywhere else. If they are, I’ve never heard about it. If they aren’t,  perhaps they should be. You can learn a lot about anyone from what they’ve done before. People in the immediate area will probably know more about the form of a local developer than do the LPA’s officers. As for learning from mistakes, even our new PM has this week admitted that that’s exactly what he intends to do. “The definition of stupidity,” Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

This could be applied to the planning system. It could also be applied to our attitude with dealing with pollution. As explained above, these have become increasingly inter-connected – as, of course, has everything else…

Brian Quinn








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