How nutrient neutrality left house plans in limbo
Plans to build thousands of new homes across the county have been thrown into doubt after Natural England triggered a shutdown due to fears over river pollution. Public affairs correspondent DAN GRIMMER dives into the details
Two words. That was all it took to wreak havoc and confusion on the system that decides where houses should – or shouldn’t – be built in Norfolk.
These words are nutritional neutrality. And suddenly they’re on the lips of council officers across the county.
They refer to a directive from government advisers which, on the face of it, seems like a good idea – to ensure that the River Wensum and the Broads are not affected by sewage pollution.
But that left council officers reaching for their phones to call lawyers.
And that means developers hoping to build homes are left in a frustrated state of uncertainty.
It all started with a letter. One that surprised council officers a lot.
He came from Natural England and was sent to every council in Norfolk.
When it landed on the planning officers’ desks, they quickly realized that the contents of the letter had implications, to a greater or lesser extent, for every council in Norfolk.
Essentially what the letter was saying was that councils with land in the River Wensum and/or Broads watersheds now needed to do more to consider the impact of developments on those waterways.
Thus, any proposal for overnight accommodation must be accompanied by an assessment demonstrating that it would not result in increased runoff of phosphates or nutrients into the watersheds.
Or, if it was, measures would have to be put in place to mitigate this – hence the term nutritional neutrality.
Such mitigation measures could involve, according to Natural England, the creation of new wetlands or the upgrading of sustainable urban drainage systems.
So why is nutritional neutrality important?
When nitrogen and phosphate nutrients enter water systems, they can cause excessive algal growth – known as eutrophication.
This pollution, usually from sewage treatment, septic tanks, agriculture and industry, reduces the oxygen in the water and makes it more difficult for aquatic species to survive.
Melanie Hughes, director of sustainability 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, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, can accelerate the growth of some plants, disrupt natural processes and impact 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 problem, which is why Natural England wrote to Norfolk Councils.
All are affected to some degree. Each of Norfolk’s seven District Councils has areas which are catchment areas for the River Wensum or the Broads.
Norwich is worst affected of all, with all city council administrative areas in catchment areas.
The short-term impact has been for councils to stop approving planning applications for housing projects – and seeking legal advice.
Boards currently lack the expertise to know how to do the necessary assessments.
They have therefore completely suspended their decisions, the time to determine what is expected and the type of advice they will have to give to the developers.
More than 10,000 homes could see their building permit delayed.
The councils are looking to bring in consultants to develop a Norfolk-wide nutrition neutrality strategy – but that will take months to put in place.
And, in the meantime, housing decisions are on ice – and the prospect has been raised that developers could turn their attention to areas of the county that are not in catchment areas.
Councils try to control where construction is taking place through local plans – plans that show where they would prefer to see housing concentrated.
But officers have already expressed concern that they may find it “very difficult” to resist development – given the requirement for areas to prove they have land on which five years of housing can be built.
For Norwich, Broadland and South Norfolk, this all comes at a particularly sensitive time.
Council officers and leaders have spent months developing the Greater Norwich Local Plan – a plan identifying where housing growth might be acceptable by 2038.
This plan, once adopted, can be used to help steer developers away from locations not included in the plan.
But the problem is that the plan must be approved by the inspectors before it can be adopted.
It is currently in the hands of inspectors and officers were hoping it would be passed early next year.
Inspectors Mike Worden and Thomas Hatfield wrote to the Greater Norwich Development Partnership – through which Norwich, Broadland and South Norfolk drew up the plan – asking for their opinion on the impact.
And there is now real concern that ambiguity and uncertainty could delay a decision by inspectors on whether or not it is sensible.
There is a sense of frustration among the councils that this has instead been ‘abandoned’ to them.
That, during the two years of the coronavirus pandemic, when planning demands were drastically reduced, Natural England could have spoken to them and discussed how best to address this issue.
For its part, Natural England acknowledges that this is not an easy process.
Ms Hughes said: “We recognize that nutrient neutrality will not be easy to adopt in many cases.
“But we would like to assure our stakeholders that Natural England, together with our partners, will help planning authorities and developers to implement it effectively so that they can build new sustainable homes and contribute to the health of people. nearby rivers, lakes and estuaries.
“In the long term, the more we pursue sustainable solutions to reduce existing pollution, the more the need for neutrality should diminish.
“We are therefore ready to work with our partners in planning, development, water and land management to secure the homes and healthy nature that make attractive places to live.”
It is understood council officials have met with Natural England on the way forward, but concerns remain.
Alan Waters, Leader of Norwich City Council, explained how this could hamper the council’s own social housing development agenda.
And, with plans for major projects such as Anglia Square and the former Colman site, Mr Waters said: ‘Hopefully it won’t have an impact for too long, it has serious ramifications.’
John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council, remains optimistic that a way forward can be found that would allow applications to be determined while longer-term solutions are worked out.
But, make no mistake, this is a major issue facing councils – with far-reaching implications in every corner of the county.