Water neutrality and Planning Policy

Horsham District is supplied with water by Southern Water from its Sussex North Water Resource Zone. This supply is sourced from the ground at abstraction sites in the Arun Valley.

The Arun valley is very important for wildlife. It contains a number of nationally and internationally important nature conservation sites.

On 14 September 2021, the Council received a Position Statement from Natural England. Information collected by Natural England shows that water abstraction for drinking water supplies is having a negative impact on the wildlife sites in the Arun Valley.  They have advised that any new development that takes place must not add to this negative impact.

One way of preventing any further negative impact is to ensure that all new development which takes place is water neutral.

Water neutrality is defined as development that takes place which does not increase the rate of water abstraction for drinking water supplies above existing levels.

Water Neutrality has impacts for the Local Plan and Neighbourhood Planning. The frequently asked questions (FAQs) below are to help explain how it affects these parts of Planning Policy.

Water neutrality and the Local Plan

Why is Water Neutrality an issue for the Local Plan?

The Nature Conservation sites in the Arun Valley are of international importance.  These sites are protected by legislation known as the Habitats Regulations (2017).   This means that by law, the Council must prepare a Local Plan that clearly shows that the plan will not have an adverse (or negative) effect on these important wildlife sites.  A way of achieving this is to prepare a plan that achieves water neutrality.

What does this mean for the Local Plan timetable?

Horsham District Council has already carried out some work on Water Neutrality as part of the preparation of the Local Plan . When the Council received Natural England’s Position Statement, it became clear that more detailed work would be needed to demonstrate that the Plan is water neutral.  To allow this work to be carried out in the detail that is needed, the Local Plan process has been delayed.

What would happen if the Council carried on with the Local Plan now?

The Local Plan is currently unable to prove that it will not have a negative impact on the protected sites in the Arun Valley. This means that the plan would fail the legal tests that it must meet. A planning inspector would have no choice but to ‘fail’ the plan.

How can the Local Plan be prepared so that it is Water Neutral?

Two approaches will be needed to ensure that the Local Plan is Water Neutral:

Firstly, all new development will need to be as water efficient as possible.  This can be achieved by installing water efficiency measures such as low flush toilets, rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling. This requirement will be set out in planning policies within the Local Plan.

However, all new development will still require some additional water.  This additional water demand will need to be offset by reducing the demand for water in existing development.  This might include fixing leaks or retrofitting existing buildings with more water efficient technology.   The overall solution for water offsetting will be set out in a wider ‘mitigation strategy’ jointly prepared by all the Local Authorities affected by Water Neutrality.

What work is the Council doing to prepare a Mitigation Strategy?

The first stage of the work on water neutrality was studies which examine the impacts on water neutrality for each local authority area on an individual basis. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Part A’ work.

The second stage considers the total (or cumulative) impact of proposed development in all the Local Authority areas that use Sussex North Water Supply Zone. (Horsham District Council, Crawley Borough Council, Chichester District Council, West Sussex County Council and the South Downs National Park).  The purpose of this work is to understand how water demand may increase in the future and work out how much water will need to be ‘offset’ through Water Neutrality. This is referred to as the 'Part B' study.

Read the report on our Local Plan Evidence Base page

The final stage of the work is ongoing. It will be to develop a Water Neutrality Mitigation Strategy. This will set out a clear, costed set of achievable measures that together achieve water neutrality. This is referred to as the ‘Part C’ stage of the work.  Ultimately, the Mitigation Strategy will be agreed by all parties involved including Natural England.  Once this Strategy is agreed, the Local Plan will be able to proceed with the production of the next stage of Local Plan preparation, known as our Regulation 19 document.

How long will the Water Neutrality Study take to complete and what does this mean for the Local Plan timetable?

'Part B' of the Water Neutrality Study was completed and published in April 2022.

Work on 'Part C' is underway. This work involves very detailed technical work being carried out by all the affected Local Authorities, together with Southern Water and Natural England.

This is a complex task, and is the first of its kind in the UK.  It is therefore expected to take some months to complete and secure agreement. It is not possible to give an exact timescale at this stage but the Council will update our Local Plan Timetable as soon as we know more.

What impact might the need for water neutrality have on the Local Plan content?

Natural England has advised that the Local Plan should require Water Neutrality to be achieved over the whole lifetime of the plan. This is because finding a long term solution to Water Neutrality (such as an alternative water supply) in not likely to come forward before 2030.

It is impossible to say with any certainty what impact water neutrality will have on the content of the Local Plan.  More needs to be known on how much water the mitigation strategy will be able to offset.

However, it is expected that some of the water neutrality solutions will take some time to implement.  This could limit the amount of development that can take place in the short to medium term.  Should this be the case our Local Plan will not be able to meet the housing targets set by national government.  A higher housing target may be possible in the later years of the Local Plan, once there are alternative water supply sources to the abstraction site in the Arun Valley.

Water neutrality and Neighbourhood Planning

My Parish is preparing a Neighbourhood Plan. Does Water Neutrality have to be considered?

Yes. Water Neutrality is a consideration for parishes that are in the process of preparing a Neighbourhood Plan.

Why is this?

By law, Neighbourhood Plans must be prepared in accordance with a set of key tests known as the ‘Basic Conditions  ’. This includes a requirement for all plans to be compatible with key pieces of environmental legislation. Although neighbourhood plans themselves do not grant planning permission for development, they are subject to compliance with The Conservation of Species and Habitats Regulations 2017 as the regulations apply to any plan as well as any developments requiring planning permission. This includes the Habitat Regulations 2017 .

These Regulations state that any plan that is prepared must consider whether the plan will have an impact on sites or species that are protected by the Habitat Regulations. This includes the Arun Valley.

This means all Neighbourhood Plans currently being prepared in Horsham District will need to consider what impact they will have on the protected sites in the Arun Valley in order for the plan to be able to meet the Basic Conditions.

The Basic Conditions refer to European Obligations and don’t specifically mention the Habitat Regulations 2017. Where do they fit in and what is the position now we have left the EU?

The Habitat Regulations started as European legislation.  Although the UK is no longer part of the European Union, this legislation has been transposed into UK law and it therefore still applies.

The Neighbourhood Plan for my Parish has passed Examination – does it still need to consider Water Neutrality?

Yes. A number of plans in Horsham District completed the examination stage before the Position Statement was received from Natural England. However, the Position Statement has immediate effect, it means that even at this late stage of Neighbourhood Plan preparation, Water Neutrality must be considered and taken into account before a plan can progress to referendum and be Made.

What would happen if a Neighbourhood Plan does not consider Water Neutrality?

To meet the legal requirements placed on us, any Neighbourhood Plan that is not yet made must be able to show that it will not have a negative impact on the protected sites in the Arun Valley. Without considering Water Neutrality, any plan that reaches the Examination stage would not meet the Basic Conditions and a Neighbourhood Plan Examiner would have no choice but to ‘fail’ the plan.

For plans which have already been through examination, if the plan did proceed to a referendum and be Made, but without consideration of Water Neutrality it would have not have met the requirements of the Habitat Regulations. This would be a legal failure in the Neighbourhood Plan preparation process. It means that the Council would be at risk of a successful Judicial Review where the plan would be quashed. This means that the plan ceases to exist and cannot be used to determine planning applications.

How should Neighbourhood Plans consider the Habitat Regulations and Water Neutrality?

In order to consider Water Neutrality, Neighbourhood Plans must carry out a process known as a Habitat Regulations Assessment.  This is divided into two stages:

  1. The first stage is a screening assessment – this considers whether the plan will have an impact on the Arun Valley either directly or indirectly.
  2. If an impact is identified, the second stage is a process called an ‘Appropriate Assessment’. This considers how the plan could be updated or amended / incorporate mitigation measures to show that the plan will be water neutral.

Both stages must be agreed by Natural England who are a key statutory consultee in this process.

What assistance will Horsham District Council give to Neighbourhood Planning Groups as part of this additional assessment process?

HDC recognise that all Neighbourhood Plans currently being prepared are being required to take account of Water Neutrality at a late stage in the plan preparation process. HDC will therefore undertake the additional screening and appropriate assessment process on behalf of the affected parishes.  As this work is complex we will appoint specialist consultants to assist with this work. We will liaise with the affected parishes directly about this process.

How long will this take?

We are working to carry out the Habitat Regulation Assessment work as quickly as possible. However, Water Neutrality is a complex issue. It is also the first time this issue has arisen in the UK, so the process of developing solutions is new to us all.  We are also dependent on third parties such as Natural England to agree the outcomes of this work.  This makes it difficult to give exact timescales but it is likely to take some months. We will inform groups of timescales as soon as we have a clearer picture.

The Neighbourhood Plan in my Parish is Made. Is any further work needed on Water Neutrality?

No. No changes are needed to plans which are already ‘Made.’ For these parishes Water Neutrality will be taken into account when planning applications are submitted.  Any development proposals (including sites which are allocated in Neighbourhood Plans) which increase the demand for drinking water will have to show that they are water neutral.

Water neutrality and planning applications

Despite Water Neutrality, there are speculative applications for development in my parish.  How is this being considered?

As set out above, any application for development which increases the demand for drinking water will have to show that they are water neutral before they can be allowed to proceed.

Where Parishes have Made Neighbourhood Plans, these policies still form part of the Development Plan and will form part of the consideration of any development proposal in addition to the consideration of water neutrality.

Plans which are not yet Made are still a ‘material consideration’ when development proposals are assessed.  The weight of these plans increases as they progress through each stage of plan preparation. Those which have successfully been through the examination process therefore have much greater weight than a plan which is at an earlier stage of preparation.

Where can I find out more about neighbourhood planning and water neutrality?

If you have further specific questions about neighbourhood plans and water neutrality please email neighbourhood.planning@horsham.gov.uk

For more general additional information about water neutrality

Natural England has published a more detailed set of FAQs and responses which you can access from our Water neutrality page.

Horsham District is situated in an area of serious water stress, as identified by the Environment Agency Water Stressed Areas Classification.

If you are considering making a planning application and want to know more about water neutrality, please firstly refer to our Water neutrality section where further information can be found.