Plans to build thousands of new homes across the county have been thrown into doubt after Natural England triggered a halt due to fears over river pollution. Public affairs correspondent DAN GRIMMER dives into the detail

Two words. That was all it took to bring chaos and confusion to the system which decides where houses should - or should not - be built in Norfolk.

Those words are nutrient neutrality. And suddenly, they are on the lips of council officers across the county.

They refer to a directive by government advisers which, on the face of it, sounds a good idea - to ensure the River Wensum and the Broads are not affected by wastewater pollution.

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But it has left council officers reaching for their phones to dial up lawyers.

And it means developers hoping to build houses are left, frustrated, in a state of limbo.

It all began with a letter. One which caught council officers very much on the hop.

It came from Natural England and was sent to every council in Norfolk.

When it landed on the desks of planning officers, they quickly realised that the contents of the letter had implications, to greater or lesser extents, for every council in Norfolk.

Essentially, what the letter said was that councils with land in the catchment areas of the River Wensum and/or the Broads, must now do more to consider the impact of developments on those waterways.

So, any proposal involving overnight accommodation must be accompanied by an assessment which shows that it would not lead to an increase in phosphate or nutrient run-off into the catchment areas.

Or, if it would, then measures would need to be put in place to mitigate for that - hence the term nutrient neutrality.

Such mitigation measures could involve, says Natural England, the creation of new wetlands or retrofitting of sustainable urban drainage systems.

So why is nutrient neutrality important?

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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Melanie Hughes, director of sustainable development at Natural England, said: "Nutrient pollution is now a major environmental issue for many of England’s most important places for nature.

"In freshwater habitats and estuaries, increased levels of nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, can speed up the growth of certain plants, disrupting natural processes and impacting wildlife.

"Algal blooms and excessive vegetation growth can kill fish and prevent birds from feeding.

"These effects also reduce people’s enjoyment of these special places."

Wastewater from new developments can exacerbate the issue, which is why Natural England wrote to Norfolk's councils.

All are affected to some degree. Each of Norfolk's seven district councils have areas which are catchment areas for either the River Wensum or the Broads.

Norwich is most affected of all, with all of the city council's administrative areas within catchment areas.

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The short-term impact has been for councils to stop approving planning applications for housing schemes - and to seek legal advice.

Councils currently lack the expertise to know how to do the necessary assessments.

So they have paused decisions altogether, while they figure out what is expected and what sort of advice they will need to give developers.

More than 10,000 homes could have planning permission delayed as a result.

Councils are looking to bring in consultants to draw up a Norfolk-wide nutrient neutrality strategy - but that will take months to put together.

%image(14357487, type="article-full", alt="Councils have not been able to grant permission for thousands of homes in Norfolk")

And, in the meantime, housing decisions are on ice - and the prospect has been raised that developers may switch their attention to areas of the county not within the catchment areas.

Councils try to control where building happens through local plans - blueprints which state where they would prefer to see housing focused.

But officers have already expressed their concern that they could find it "very difficult" to resist development - given the requirement of areas to prove they have land where five years' worth of housing supply can be built.

For Norwich, Broadland and South Norfolk, this all comes at a particularly sensitive time.

Officers and council leaders have spent months working up the Greater Norwich Local Plan - a blueprint identifying where housing growth could be acceptable between now and 2038.

%image(14360873, type="article-full", alt="This map shows where housing would be allocated if the Greater Norwich Local Plan is approved. Pic: Greater Norwich Development Partnership.")

That plan, once adopted, can be used to help ward off developers eyeing locations not included in the plan.

But the problem is that plan needs to be approved by inspectors before it can be adopted.

It is in the hands of inspectors at the moment and officers hoped it would be adopted early next year.

Inspectors Mike Worden and Thomas Hatfield have written to the Greater Norwich Development Partnership - through which Norwich, Broadland and South Norfolk have put the plan together - seeking its views on what the impact would be.

And there is now real alarm that the ambiguity and uncertainty could delay a decision by inspectors on whether it is sound or not.

There is a sense of frustration among councils that this has been rather 'dropped' on them.

That, during the two years of the coronavirus pandemic, when planning applications were much reduced, Natural England could have talked to them and discussed how best to address this issue.

For its part, Natural England acknowledges this is not an easy process.

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

"But we would like to assure our stakeholders that Natural England, working alongside our partners, will support planning authorities and developers to implement it effectively so that they can build sustainable new homes and contribute to healthy rivers, lakes and estuaries nearby.

"In the long run, the further we push on with sustainable solutions to reduce existing pollution, the lighter the need for neutrality should become.

"We therefore stand ready to work with our partners in planning, development, water and land management to secure the homes and the healthy nature that make attractive places for people to live."

It is understood council officers have met Natural England about the way forward, but concerns remain.

%image(14365626, type="article-full", alt="Alan Waters, Norwich City Council leader and Labour city councillor for Crome ward")

Alan Waters, leader of Norwich City Council, has spoken of how it could hamper the council's own programme of building council homes.

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And, with plans for major schemes such as Anglia Square and the former Colman's site coming forward, Mr Waters said: "I hope it won’t impact things for too long, it has some serious ramifications.”

John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council, remains optimistic a way forward can be found which would allow applications to be determined while the longer-term solutions are thrashed out.

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But, make no mistake, this is a major issue which councils are having to grapple with - with far reaching implications in every corner of the county.