Controversial government plans to relax environmental rules to boost housebuilding have been scuppered - casting thousands of new homes in Norfolk back into limbo.

Plans to axe 'nutrient neutrality' rules were set out by prime minister Rishi Sunak and local government secretary Michael Gove on a visit to Norfolk last month.

But the House of Lords voted 192 to 161 against scrapping them on Wednesday night.

Because the contentious reform was introduced at such a late stage in the passage of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, it will not return to the Commons as part of so-called parliamentary 'ping-pong', meaning the proposed solution will not be revived.Dereham Times: Prime minister Rishi Sunak and local government secretary Michael Gove visited Hethersett to announce they wanted to scrap the rulesPrime minister Rishi Sunak and local government secretary Michael Gove visited Hethersett to announce they wanted to scrap the rules (Image: Press Association)

Labour and Liberal Democrat peers were joined by three Tory peers in voting to block ministers' plans to rip up rules requiring developers building new homes in protected areas such as Norfolk to provide mitigations to ensure no new additional nutrients make it into rivers and lakes.

The nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are found in waste water from homes and contribute to pollution in waterways.

The government's defeat in the Lords means councils in large parts of Norfolk will still not be able to grant planning permission for new homes in the catchment areas of the river Wensum and the Broads, unless it can be proved that measures are in place to prevent housing schemes adding pollutants.

Councils in those areas had been told by government advisors Natural England in March last year that they could not allow any new homes to be built until they had addressed the issue. Dereham Times: South Norfolk Council leader John FullerSouth Norfolk Council leader John Fuller (Image: Newsquest)

The limbo has been in place ever since, despite various attempts to find a solution.

South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller and Breckland District Council leader Sam Chapman-Allen had been among council leaders from across political parties who had written to Mr Sunak calling for an intervention.

READ MORE: How two words left Norfolk's plans for thousands of homes in limbo

They had said 41,000 homes across Norfolk had been put on hold because of the issue and that local builders' merchants had laid off staff and house prices could rise as a result.

Councils have launched a joint venture with Anglian Water, through which housebuilders will be able to 'offset' the impact of developments by buying 'credits' to fund mitigation measures.

Dereham Times: Decisions over thousands of Norfolk homes will remain in limboDecisions over thousands of Norfolk homes will remain in limbo (Image: Chris Bishop)

With the government's contentious reform - which was opposed by environmental campaigners, including Norfolk Wildlife Trust - in tatters after the humiliating Lords defeat, that credit scheme will have to be the way forward to unlock the stalled housing.

Mr Fuller said: "The councils have got the contingency plans in place, which will now need to be dusted off.

"But I'm disappointed the government proposals were misrepresented by organisations with an axe to grind.

"They would have made organisations like Defra, Natural England and the water companies responsible for doing their job and cleaning up rivers, rather than passing the buck to councils, which lack the powers, responsibility and enforcement powers to do so."

Mr Fuller added: "The people who will now suffer most are the artisan tradespeople - the plumbers, tilers, electricians and roofers who will now have to stand idle, rather than building much-needed homes."

Dereham Times: Gareth Dalglish, from Norfolk Wildlife TrustGareth Dalglish, from Norfolk Wildlife Trust (Image: Norfolk Wildlife Trust)

Gareth Dalglish, Norfolk Wildlife Trust's director of nature recovery, welcomed the Lords' vote.

He said: "Any weakening of environmental protections would have a devastating effect on our Norfolk rivers, streams and wildlife – already under huge pressure from sewage and farm pollution.

"Development and river health are not mutually exclusive. There are mechanisms put in place to allow development and ensure nutrients levels in important rivers and wetland in the Broads are not increased, for instance through the Norfolk Environmental Credits scheme.

"We will continue our work with councils across Norfolk to share best practice and encourage a sustainable approach to all development, but this is underpinned and supported by environmental legislation, which must be upheld."

Green county councillor Jamie Osborn agreed. He said: "Norfolk has some of the most unique and precious rivers in the world, but they are at risk because of decades of pollution.

"We need better regulation to prevent the dumping of toxic waste into our rivers, not a free pass for developers to pollute them even more. 

"It is perfectly possible to get more homes built without compromising the environment."

Dereham Times: The rules aim to prevent pollutionThe rules aim to prevent pollution (Image: Mike Page)

The upper chamber also rejected by 203 votes to 156, majority 47, a move to give ministers wide-ranging powers that critics warned could have allowed the secretary of state to resurrect the plans by decree.

Among those to vote against the changes was Tory peer Lord Deben, a former environment secretary and ex-Suffolk Coastal MP.

Dereham Times: Lord DebenLord Deben (Image: UK Parliament)

He said: "This is the kind of attitude that you see in the Republican Party of the United States.

"The people who don’t believe in climate change, the people who are anti-vaxxers, don’t look at the facts."