City's house building boom on hold following 'unexpected' pollution ruling

Some of the walls of new homes being built on the Festival Park site being developed off Dereham Roa

Some of the walls of new homes being built on the Festival Park site being developed off Dereham Road in Easton by Persimmon Homes Anglia - Credit: Peter Milliken

Housebuilders could be forced to go on a hiatus after a new law to protect The Broads and the River Wensum has come into force.

Planning experts believe the move means local authorities will have to come up with "bespoke measures" to make sure developments are in line with new guidance from government advisor Natural England.

Natural England has told Norfolk councils they must not grant permission for any projects - from yurts to thousands of properties - until developers can prove the plans would not lead to more nutrients flowing into waterways.

Natural England says nutrient neutrality is necessary to prevent algal blooms on the Broads.

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

Phil Courtier, director of place at South Norfolk Council and Broadland District Council, said: "We need to look at short-term bespoke solutions to stop a hiatus as quickly as possible.

"We have to protect water but my concern is the planning system and developers are being used as a solution."

He said the problem was much broader, adding the best way to fix the issue was local authorities was working with Anglian Water and landowners to reduce pollutants entering waterways. 

The council expert said it could take up to nine months to create a wider solution for affected outline and reserved matters plans in catchment areas of the Wensum and the Broads.

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Schemes that already have approval can still be built and £100,000 will be awarded by the government to go towards anti-pollution solutions.

And, Mr Courtier warned, extra costs to developers could reduce the capacity for affordable homes.

A Persimmon Anglia spokesman said: “We are committed to meeting the need for high quality, affordable homes in an environmentally friendly manner.

"The opportunity for families to get their first home and many jobs depends on houses being built and Natural England’s announcements have created uncertainty.

"We are keen to work with affected councils to find a solution so new homes and jobs are secured.”

Easton Parish Council chairman Peter Milliken.

Easton Parish Council member Peter Milliken - Credit: Denise Bradley

Persimmon Homes is building 890 homes on land north and south of Dereham Road in Easton.

Easton Parish Council member Peter Milliken, 56, said: "We need to protect out environment but we need to be realistic.

"We need houses in the right place which are affordable. The Natural England change will have a big effect on developments and so there should be a warning for people wanting to buy new houses."

University student Ben Moye, 21, who sits on Easton Parish Council.

Ben Moye, 22, who sits on Easton Parish Council - Credit: Ben Moye

Another Easton parish councillor, Ben Moye, 22, who also works as a planner for a Surrey council, said: "The reasoning for putting in the nutrient neutrality rule is good but it is abrupt.

"In the short-term it will cause pain for developers. It is going to hold up applications and leave them in limbo." 

Simon Bryan, development director for Hopkins Homes, said: “We understand how important it is to protect and mitigate the impact on our local environment, yet we sympathise with the councils and their planning teams who have received this sudden and unexpected decision.

“Applications that have been in the planning system for many years at substantial cost have now been paused, threatening the validity of the Local Plan and allocated sites."

Melanie Hughes, director of sustainable development at Natural England, said the body would help councils make the assessments and come up with mitigation.

She added: "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."

Laura Harvey, 38, from Henby Way, Thorpe St Andrew, whose daughter Millie, 10, set up a petition to stop 725 homes being built in the town, said: "I agree with the rule. We need extra houses but you need to draw the line somewhere. Developers have got to look at eco-friendly ideas."

Nine-year-old Millie Harvey, front, holding her poster and petition against houses being built at th

Millie Harvey, now aged 10, front, holding her poster and petition against houses being built at the former Pinebanks site in Thorpe St Andrew, with her family, mum and dad, Laura and Kevin, and brother Archie, and neighbours from Henby Way who are against the development - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

An Anglian Water spokeswoman said: "We support sustainable development and where population and economic growth has the potential to cause higher levels of nutrients in waste water, we expand or optimise our treatment processes to cope.

"Our processes have additional headroom in their capacity to allow for this.

"This is why our treatment works are not contributing to high levels of phosphate in the environment."

A Norwich City Council spokeswoman said: "The council is continuing to work with Natural England and the other affected Norfolk planning authorities to resolve the matter as quickly as possible."

Challenging times for planners

Mitigation solutions will be difficult to find in the short-term because of the nutrient neutrality advice to Norfolk councils, according to the government.

In a letter from Joanna Averley, chief planner from Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to the Norfolk councils affected by the nutrient pollution policy changes, she said: "Natural England have issued this advice where habitats sites are in an unfavourable conservation status and additional nutrient loads, such as from development, may have an adverse effect.

"This is an environmental issue which we must work together to address.

"We recognise it is unlikely for there to be mitigation solutions in-place or readily available and so the ability for development to be made acceptable will be necessarily limited in the short-term.

"It may take time for applicants to secure mitigation to be able to demonstrate neutrality."