Pollution fears see decisions on new homes in north Norfolk halted

Work under way on a new housing development in Norfolk.

Granting of permission over new housing developments in a number of areas in Norfolk has been halted. - Credit: Archant

Decisions on whether new houses, care homes, camp sites and other forms of accommodation in north Norfolk have ground to a halt - because of concerns about pollution to the Broads and River Wensum.

Government advisor Natural England has told North Norfolk, Broadland and other councils across the country they must not grant planning permission for any schemes involving 'overnight accommodation', until it can prove they would not lead to more nutrients flowing into waterways.

The impacts of new developments must first be assessed and measures put in place to prevent pollution.

River Wensum Norwich

No planning applications for housing can be approved within the catchment area for the River Wensum. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

In the absence of being able to do that yet, councils have suspended granting of permission within catchment areas of the Broads - which includes a large chunk of north Norfolk - and the River Wensum.

There is currently no timescale on how soon the issue will be resolved to allow schemes to be approved.

Natural England has taken action because, when nitrogen and phosphate nutrients enter water systems it can cause excessive growth of algae - known as eutrophication.

That pollution, generally from sewage treatment, septic tanks, farming and industry, reduces the oxygen in the water and makes it harder for aquatic species to survive.

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Wastewater from new developments can exacerbate the issue.

So Natural England wrote to councils telling them they need to make assessments and, where necessary, come up with mitigation to make developments nutrient neutral.

Blue Green Algae on the Broads in Norfolk

Natural England says nutrient neutrality is necessary to prevent algal blooms on the Broads. - Credit: Mike Page

John Toye, North Norfolk District Council's portfolio holder for planning and enforcement, said: "Natural England has extended requirements for water pollution impacts on specific habitats – in North Norfolk, these relate to developments around the River Wensum Special Area of Conservation and the Broads Special Area of Conservation and Ramsar site.

"While planning authorities implement the new guidance, some planning permissions cannot be granted to properties in the affected areas. This is because developments must now show they will not have any negative impact on habitats, or are to offset the impact."

But Mr Toye said the implementation of the changes was yet to fully understood. 

John Toye

John Toye, North Norfolk district councillor. - Credit: Paul Heinrich

He said: "We will, by working with neighbouring authorities, find solutions and support applicants with guidance on the new requirements."

Melanie Hughes, director of sustainable development at Natural England, said: "Many mitigation measures will involve the creation of new wetlands, woodland or grasslands - providing new spaces for nature and recreation in the process - or installing environmentally-friendly sustainable drainage systems.

"We recognise that nutrient neutrality won’t be easy to adopt in many cases."

The government is offering £100,000 to councils in each catchment area affected, to pay for catchment officers.

Broadland's Brundall ward Green Party councillor Jan Davis

Broadland's Brundall ward Green Party councillor Jan Davis - Credit: George Thompson

Jan Davis, Broadland Green Party spokesperson and Broadland district councillor, welcomed the guidance.

He said it would help protect the Broads from algal blooms and any delay to planning applications was a "small price to pay".

He said: "Action on this complex issue is well overdue. It is therefore heartening to see Natural England taking a proactive stance by issuing guidance to local planning authorities and developers on this important issue.

"This is particularly important in the Broads where water quality is vital for our water supplies, fisheries, wildlife, and tourism."

Could this change where homes are built?

The letter from Natural England seemed to take the majority of Norfolk councils by surprise - and left them scrambling to figure out the implications.

It is unclear how long it will take to get the processes to allow nutrient neutrality assessments - and mitigation where needed - in place.

And could this change where developers apply to build homes?

Iain Hill, a partner at Norwich-based property consultants Bidwells, thinks it might if the delays mean councils cannot prove they have a five-year housing supply.

Iain Hill of Bidwells.

Iain Hill, of Bidwells. - Credit: Archant

He said: "If these targets are adversely affected, it seems likely developers will focus their attention on those settlements in Norfolk outside the identified catchment area of the habitat sites, given the certainty in relation to the decision making process they provide and their need to continue to deliver housing."

'It's outrageous': Decisions come to halt

David Taylor, from North Walsham, is among those who have already been affected by the planning decree. 

Mr Taylor bought a 5.6-acre property in 2017 which included nine different homes, most of which he has now sold. 

He lives in one of the homes, and since 2019 has been seeking permission to knock over a derelict warehouse on the site and build additional ‘barn-style’ homes - a plan which he has had to put on the backburner for now. 

Mr Taylor said: “We’ve spent about £30,000 getting different surveys done so we could get this permission. But now [NNDC] has said ‘we’re not going to look at your case until at least June now because Natural England have come along and said we’re going to stop looking at all planning. 

“It’s mind blowing how it has point-blank stopped everything with no prior warning whatsoever.

“I think it’s outrageous that they can just do that.”