Around the Tory heartland of Chichester, the government’s promise to build 300,000 homes a year has prompted loyal followers to take to the streets in protest.
At first glance it might look like nimbyism, but dig deeper and the uprising exposes a problem that touches on England’s national infrastructure, the climate crisis and an ongoing environmental scandal.
People in the towns, villages and hamlets stretching west and south from Chichester live in an area served by Southern Water, which was fined a record £90m last year for illegally discharging billions of litres of raw sewage into the protected coastal waters off the south coast of Hampshire and Kent.
Much of the sewage infrastructure in the area is at capacity or nearly at capacity, as the case against the water company exposed.
Chichester, Thornham, Lavant and Bosham wastewater treatment works have been identified by Southern Water as “environmentally constrained” – they cannot take more volumes without harm to the environment. But the pressure is on areas such as Chichester to take their share of the government’s housing target.
According to the district council, the allocation for the area is 638 dwellings a year from 2021 to 2039, equating to 10,778 over the whole period. In the next five years alone, it means Chichester and its surrounding areas will host more than 3,000 new homes under government allocation.
Nearly 70% of the land, however, is a national park, so the housing would be concentrated in 20-30% to the west and south of the city.
The government has so far refused requests by the council to be treated as an exceptional case and have its housing allocation reduced. Susan Taylor, the council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for planning, said it was working on a review of its local plan to show ministers what level of housing might be achievable.
“We have publicly said that we do not believe this target is achievable as things stand, due to infrastructure constraints,” said Taylor.
One problem is transport links, with heavy congestion on the A27. Sewage infrastructure is another concern. “Wastewater treatment plants are reaching the limits of their permits and headroom,” Taylor said.
To keep the system from backing up into people’s homes, untreated sewage and wastewater continues to be discharged, often for days at a time, from treatment works into Chichester harbour, one of the most highly protected marine environments in England.
Demonstrators who took to the streets last month carrying banners saying “Save our south coast” are concerned that any more pressure on wastewater treatment works will cause an environmental disaster.
Mike Owens, who co-founded the Clean Harbours Partnership, said: “All five sewage treatment works close by are all at, or very close to, their maximum capacity, yet development continues unabated and Southern Water investment plans are not accurately tracking demand. We are now at a stage where, due to insufficient capacity, illegal sewage discharges are inevitably going to be routine, dumping human waste and unacceptable concentrations of chemicals into our harbours.
“We are demanding that councils, water companies and regulators collaborate to … ensure any development does not proceed until sufficient and operational sewage infrastructure is in place to protect our precious environment.”
If crumbling concrete and pipes are one issue, the threat of the climate crisis is another constraint on the scale of housebuilding demanded. Much of the land that would have to support housing is surrounded by water. On the Manhood peninsula, home to the coastal villages of East and West Wittering and Selsey, climate maps predict much of the land will be underwater in just a few decades.
Joan Foster, the chair of the Save the Manhood Peninsula campaign, said: “The potential for sea level rises could put most of the Manhood underwater in 50 years’ time. It is simply immoral to build houses and ask people to settle there knowing this.”
More than 5,000 people have signed a petition addressed to Michael Gove, the housing secretary, calling on him to stop development on the Manhood peninsula and in villages around the harbour. Several hundred people marched through Chichester last month.
“Protesting like this is very unusual for Chichester. It is a true blue Tory seat but people are very concerned,” said Foster.
She said the delay in completion of the review of the local plan – due in 2019 but now expected by 2023-4 – left the whole area vulnerable to speculative planning applications for housing from developers.
Roger Mavity, also of the Save the Manhood Peninsula campaign, has collated data on development. He said there were 378 homes recently completed or under construction, 832 going through the planning application process, and space for a further 1,248 classified as “developable” under the housing and economic land availability assessment. “So that’s potentially 2,458 new homes on the drawing board as we speak,” he said.
Next month developers will appeal against a refusal by the council to allow the building of 70 homes outside East Wittering.
Sandra Norval, a future growth leader at Southern Water, said there were options to be explored such as using long sea outfalls for effluent, and in a project due to be completed this spring, wastewater was being diverted from Chichester treatment plants via a new pipeline to Tangmere wastewater treatment works, which does not discharge into the harbour.
She said the company was working with the best available technology to remove nutrients from wastewater to the level required, and any increase in volumes into wastewater treatment plants would have to involve changing permits with the Environment Agency or using as yet undeveloped technology.
The state of the sewage system presented a “challenging obstacle to development, which we are working hard to overcome, in partnership with all the key stakeholders in the area,” she said.
A spokesperson from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “Councils, not central government, set their own housing targets in their local plan. Our guidance should be considered alongside local constraints, including the need for infrastructure to support new development, and consideration for the environment.”