The following was written by Richard Shuldham, associate in the development team at Savills in Norwich.

The Government recently announced proposed reforms around nutrient neutrality in an attempt to unlock homes in the development pipeline.

But what is the current status, what do we know about the suggested changes, and what will they mean for housebuilders, developers and the environment in the East of England?

It is argued that the housebuilding industry has been disproportionately affected by nutrient neutrality rules, being a relatively small contributor to the overall supply of nutrients, via waste water, and, in many cases, having struggled to secure appropriate solutions.

The Government claims that a national backlog of up to 100,000 homes could be cleared by 2030 if rules around building houses near waterways in protected areas are relaxed.

The numbers

Natural England guidance, as it stands, means 62 local authorities in England cannot allow new residential development to take place unless builders can prove their projects are “nutrient neutral” in protected areas, including Norfolk.

The county is the only area in the East of England that currently falls under nutrient neutrality guidelines and the impact on development has been felt particularly hard as all seven local authorities, eight when you include The Broads Authority, are affected.

As of March 2023, there were 232 sites in nutrient neutrality catchment areas across the UK for which a full planning application had been submitted, with a total combined capacity to deliver 29,095 homes.

For sites with full permission granted, the numbers are lower, with 10,132 homes spread across 112 sites. Further analysis has shown that the number of homes allocated in Local Plans (three years to March 2021) totals 48,677.

The Government’s recognition of this backlog and the importance of unlocking much-needed housing is welcomed, as is the commitment to address the contribution of other key nutrient inputs such as agriculture.

A reaffirmation of the commitment to investing in and upgrading water waste treatment, restoration programmes and using nature-based solutions as a way of improving the environment is equally encouraging.

Nutrient neutrality, a concept which arose in late 2018 concerning the interpretation of the Habitats Directive, has raised the profile of water pollution in this country and has resulted in a number of mitigation schemes coming forward.

Further investment in this important area is needed in order to address the issues raised by nutrient pollution, while also recognising the significant benefits they can have in achieving other key environmental aims, such as biodiversity net gain.

The proposed reforms: a summary

  • Changes to be delivered through the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) as an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which is currently with the House of Lords and targeted for royal assent in 2024
  • Proposal to insert new clauses into the Habitat Regulations which will largely remove the consideration of the impacts of nutrient pollution for most planning applications
  • Natural England will be provided with additional funding to implement measures to mitigate the nutrient production of new developments within catchments
  • Some sort of ‘fair contribution’ will be required from larger developments to contribute to the delivery of Natural England’s nutrient neutrality solutions
  • There will be additional funding and requirements for the agricultural sector and water companies to improve sewage and nutrient run off treatment, particularly slurry treatment for farming, and nature-based solutions (such as wetland creation) for water companies
  • Development will be scrutinised for its impact on water recycling centres, particularly in relation to storm water management and avoiding overloading water infrastructure, potentially through additional sustainable urban drainage systems


The big question on everyone’s lips is one of timing, how long will the changes take to come into force? There has been a lot of publicity about this most recent announcement – a possible sign the proposed amendments will be controversial.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) has also gone back before the House of Lords for further debate. Will the amendments survive unscathed? What effect will a general election have?


The DLUHC has announced an ongoing consultation with the Home Builders Federation and local authorities to work out the details of the proposals, particularly on the delivery of mitigation and the mechanics of a ‘fair contribution’.

Closer to home, local authorities in Norfolk are already in discussions with developers and other stakeholders to deliver nutrient-neutrality solutions that allow housing to be brought forward in line with the existing rules.

Norfolk has some of the best chalk steam habitats in the world and the aim for all should be to work towards a shared goal of a better environment that protects biodiversity, while balancing that with the very real need for new homes.

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