The Meonmarsh scheme is in the advanced stages of restoring wetland on land at Titchfield, essentially creating a new local nature reserve. It will transform what is now a species-poor, overgrazed and denuded site, into a bio-diverse mosaic of habitats, principally a free water surface reed bed system. How did it come about?
The global interaction between an ever-growing human population and the natural environment has been intensifying since the agricultural revolution. Degradation of soils, habitat loss, pollution of water bodies and depletion of biodiversity: these are symptoms of the conflict between the demands of an increasing (and increasingly wasteful) population and the health of our surrounding ecosystems.
Whilst at University in 1979 reading Ecology I was an isolated voice. I held (and still hold) the belief that only when ‘the s*** is piled up on people’s doorsteps’ will appropriate action finally be taken on environmental issues. My case rests on the evidence of the last four decades during which biodiversity has diminished inexorably. The feeble dawn chorus in recent years is a daily reminder of the crash of biodiversity in our country.
New advice on nutrient pollution
I have taken a lifetime interest in this conflict, and in 2019 it reached my own doorstep, which includes the Solent, an internationally designated site of importance for wildlife. Whilst I was awaiting a planning approval to build three new residential dwellings, all such decisions were placed on hold by the local authority, due to new advice from Natural England (NE) whose responsibility it is to advise public bodies on matters relating to the natural environment.
NE had taken the position, following studies in the Solent that identified significant environmental degradation due to nutrient pollution, that such permissions could not be granted where there is doubt that to do so would contribute to the further deterioration of the marine environment.
The legislation that underlies this advice is the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017*. It requires a Habitats Regulations Assessment to be carried out by the local authority to assess the likelihood that a planning proposal could infringe on the conservation management of a protected site (such as the Solent Special Protection Area (SPA) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC)).
If there is doubt, then an Appropriate Assessment must be carried out to further examine the likelihood that the proposal may cause harm to the relevant protected site. If a project fails this test, then it cannot be recommended for approval unless ‘nitrate neutrality’ can be demonstrated or appropriate mitigation measures are offered and approved.
Impact of agriculture and housing
In the case of the Solent, nutrients are the issue; nitrates and phosphates in particular. Research has demonstrated that approximately 80% of the nitrates that enter the Solent derive from agricultural sources, specifically the addition of fertilizers to land, a proportion of which finds its way, via runoff in watercourses or through the underlying soils and bedrock, into the sea. The remaining 20% is comprised of other sources which include wastewater treatment plants.
It is worth noting that new build houses form a small percentage of the entire housing stock and hence represent a fraction of that 20%. Nevertheless, new dwellings require planning permission, whilst continued agricultural practices, representing the lion’s share of the pollution sources, do not. In this respect, the residential building industry has some justification in asserting unfair and disproportionate treatment.
At the outset of the ‘nitrates issue’, I made myself unpopular with developers by describing the issue as a ‘tough nut to crack’ that could take years to resolve. And so it did.
Two years later there are no longer planning permissions being denied on the basis of nitrate neutrality within our region. Offsite mitigation is available to purchase from a number of sources, including the pioneering Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s initiative at Duxmore on the Isle of Wight.
The HIWWT saw the opportunity that the situation represented. They understood that new ways must be found to facilitate and fund conservation efforts. Their scheme takes relatively unproductive land out of agriculture and re-wilds it, thereby ceasing and preventing the future addition of fertilizers onto that land, with the consequent nitrate saving being weighed against the new nitrate output of specified permitted developments.
The principle is sound, with the science behind it developed by Natural England in the form of their Nutrient Neutrality Methodology. It is designed to prevent further deterioration of the Solent whilst allowing some development to take place. In my view, it is the very definition of sustainability.
The Meonmarsh project
Other parties also saw the positive opportunity presented. I am involved with others in developing a scheme named Meonmarsh on the lower floodplain of the River Meon, closely aligned with the Natural England advice notes on measures designed to mitigate for nutrients. Meonmarsh is located to the south-east of Titchfield village, with the Meon forming part of the boundary of the site.
“The site is currently comprised entirely of poor quality ‘grazing marsh’. The proposal includes the retention and enhancement of the richest part of this habitat type, plus the addition of a range of new habitat types to include open water areas, channels, reed beds and, most importantly, a huge increase in ‘wet edge’, the richest habitat type that offers opportunities for a myriad of flora and fauna.” [www.meonmarsh.com]
The scheme has the potential (subject to appropriate management) to continually remove nutrients from the river, the equivalent of 1500 new dwellings. Reedbeds are nature’s waste treatment plants. The system is also predicted to uplift biodiversity by 30% onsite and help to reverse the centuries long decline of this rich and important type of habitat.
Unfortunately, some saw a different opportunity. The local NIMBY contingent, armed with deeply flawed legal advice from ‘specialist’ legal advisors, believed that a rigid and literal translation of certain clauses within the Habitats Regulations could be interpreted to mean that no development could be permitted within our region, presumably in perpetuity. With a misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘scientific certainty’ they attempted to dissect and discredit the science behind the Natural England methodology.
Tested and intensively scrutinised multiple times in court, the methodology stands. It is based on the best available scientific evidence and is subject to improvement as new data becomes available, in accordance with the best scientific principles. Not without a touch of irony, the lengthy legal wranglings caused by these groups added support to the building lobby argument that the environmental protection legislation is ‘red tape’ and a barrier to growth, no doubt fuelling the desire of certain Conservative Party members to attempt to remove it entirely from domestic law.
Finding the right balance
As of today’s date, the supply of ‘nitrate credits’ looks to be, going forward, broadly matched by demand within our region. New woodland is already being planted, land is already being re-wilded and wetlands are poised to be created, including Meonmarsh and others. All funded by developers. Future management and monitoring of the offset sites is ensured by legal obligations attached to the titles.
We will only ever be able to restore nature at scale when large numbers of private sector individuals and businesses bring forward investment into nature recovery. New financial models to facilitate that investment are needed and over time I hope to see many more projects such as that at Duxmore and Meonmarsh, each of them rebuilding nature and stitching back the fabric of the countryside. Lots of relatively small-scale interventions, if replicated across the country, could lead to a transformational change in what our countryside looks like.
Fast forward to the present and we wait to see whether Liz Truss’s plans for a bonfire of EU-derived legislation, by means of the retained EU law bill, will be amended or withdrawn by the Sunak government. It seems likely that the deregulatory mindset will continue – if so, progress on environmental protection in our country, including the benefits of the Habitat Directive and therefore the approach I write about above, remains at risk of being derailed by science denial, negligence and ideology.
*The Regulations, (amended in 2019), form one of the pieces of domestic law that transposed the land and marine aspects of the EU derived Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC).