Fears that halt in house building could last up to two years

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

Delays to the building of homes across much of Norfolk, caused by concerns over river pollution, could take two years to resolve.

Tim Adams, leader of North Norfolk District Council, warned of a “very worst case scenario” of up to 24 months being needed before planning permission for new homes can be issued in the area affected. 

Natural England imposed stringent "nutrient neutrality" requirements in March, which have effectively placed a temporary blanket ban on granting planning permission for new homes in the catchment area of the Broads and Wensum. 

The ban covers all of Norwich, along with large parts of Broadland, Breckland, South Norfolk and North Norfolk, plus smaller parts of west Norfolk and Great Yarmouth borough.

Mr Adams pointed out that other parts of the country, which have had the requirements imposed on them in recent years, had only been able to introduce solutions after two years, but said he “would hope there’s been some learning since then” to enable faster solutions in Norfolk. 

In a series of other developments:

  • Norwich City Council said it hopes to be able to grant some planning permissions by autumn of this year, but more complex projects will take longer.
  • The Home Builders Federation raised concerns, warning that 10,490 new homes across Norfolk could be delayed as a result of the ban.
  • Mr Adams warned that councils’ five-year housing supplies could be threatened by the ban. If councils are unable to prove they have enough housing to supply the needs of their residents for the next five years, there is a presumption in favour of development when housebuilders apply for planning permission. He said this could mean homes are built “in an unabated fashion” in the areas unaffected by the ban.
Tim Adams (Liberal Democrats) is standing for Cromer division.

North Norfolk District Council's Liberal Democrat leader Tim Adams. - Credit: Supplied by the Liberal Democrat

Mr Adams, a Liberal Democrat, said he hoped a solution could be found in less than a year, but that it was “certainly going to be months”.

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He added: “It does need to be solved sooner rather than later.

“I understand why this [nutrient neutrality] is needed but it is [about] phasing it in and ensuring that we can continue to deliver homes, care homes - and holiday accommodation, [which is] not as important but still a consideration.”

Phil Courtier, head of planning at South Norfolk and Broadland councils, spoke along similar timescales, saying: “As a group of Norfolk councils, we are working together to find solutions to this problem and we are striving to bring those solutions into effect in the next few months.”

He warned however that “longer-term, strategic solutions” would take longer to develop. 

A spokeswoman for Norwich City Council said: “We are disappointed and frustrated at the lack of engagement before the guidance on nutrient neutrality was issued by Natural England.

City Hall in Norwich.

Norwich is among the authorities affected by the requirements, but it hopes to be able to grant "some permissions" by the autumn. - Credit: Nick Butcher

“This essentially means we cannot issue any permissions resulting in overnight stays and has serious implications for growth in Norwich and across the whole county.

“Our current focus is on finding solutions and we are working with Natural England to move forward quickly.

"We are working at pace, with the other Norfolk authorities, to find and implement short-term solutions to enable the granting of some permissions and we hope to achieve this by autumn this year.

“The longer-term mitigation is likely to be a Norfolk-wide solution and will take time to identify and then implement.”

In an interview with the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Tuesday (May 3) morning, Natural England chairman Tony Juniper insisted the measures were not about stopping development, but addressing a “very serious and very real pollution challenge”. 

Natural England chairman Tony Juniper

Natural England chairman Tony Juniper - Credit: Natural England

He said that some 3,000 homes had been found to be ‘nutrient neutral’ and had been granted permission. 

A Natural England spokesman later clarified that all of those 3,000 homes were located in the Solent, in Hampshire, which has been under ‘nutrient neutrality’ requirements since 2018. 

But the Home Builders Federation (HBF) argued that the contribution of homes to nutrients entering waterways was drastically outweighed by other sources, such as agriculture. 

James Stevens, director for cities at the HBF said: “Avoiding harm to water habitats caused by nutrients is important, and the housebuilding industry is prepared to play its part in a way that is fair and reasonable.

“However, we face an acute housing shortage and the social and economic implications of delaying tens of thousands of homes are stark.

“We are urging government to agree proportionate measures that reflect the contribution of housing delivery to the issue without delay.”

The River Wensum in Norwich had the most sewage spills in Norfolk last year

Natural England is concerned about the level of nutrients flowing into the river Wensum, which runs through the heart of Norwich. - Credit: Denise Bradley

The total number of homes delayed in the latest 42 local authorities affected by the new measures, is estimated by the HBF at 36,752, of which 40pc have permission in principle, and 10,490 are in Norfolk.

Other parts of the country affected by the requirements include Devon, Hampshire and parts of the north-east of England.

What sorts of solutions could councils come up with?

Natural England chairman Tony Juniper suggested that one potential solution could involve “taking land out of production in agriculture… turning it into a wildlife habitat that becomes nutrient negative and as a result, helps to achieve nutrient neutrality across the catchment”.

In this way, councils would effectively have a budget for a certain amount of nutrients to flow into the waterways, so long as enough land was freed up to absorb some of those nutrients. 

Thompson Common pingos wetland habitats Norfolk Wildlife Trust

The creation of new wildlife habitats along river catchments could help councils achieve nutrient neutrality. - Credit: Richard Osbourne/Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Another potential part of a solution could see developers charged a tariff to help the councils fund the creation of such habitats, or other mitigatory measures. 

Mr Juniper said: “In some places there’s a lot of space and there’s land that can be used to achieve mitigation. In other places it’s more tricky.

“But it is very much a case by case approach that’s needed, and actually [the] government is just consulting now, through its Nature Recovery green paper, on how we might be able to take different approaches in the future, to be able to sort these problems on a more strategic scale.”