About the Broads

7.1 Introduction

The Broads is an internationally important wetland and designated protected landscape of the highest order, with a status equivalent to that of a National Park and one of Europe’s finest and most important wetlands for nature conservation. Its rich mosaic of habitats comprises, among other things, saltmarshes, intertidal mudflats, shallow lakes, fens, drained marshland, wet woodland, relict estuary and coastal dunes. The Broads’ iconic features include 125 miles of lock free waterways, over 25% of the UK’s conservation priority wildlife, and more than 60 drainage mills that are still intact. This section gives some background about the area’s history and environment.

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7.2 How the Broads was formed

From around the 11th century, the demand for timber and fuel was so high that most woodland was felled, and the growing population began digging the peat in the river valleys to provide a suitable fuel alternative. Rising sea levels then flooded these early peat diggings and, despite numerous drainage attempts, the flooding continued and the shallow lakes or ‘broads’ we see today were formed.

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7.3 The Broads Authority

The Broads Authority is a Special Statutory Authority established under the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988[2] . It has a statutory duty to manage the Broads for three purposes, none of which takes precedence:

  • Conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Broads;
  • Promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the Broads by the public; and
  • Protecting the interests of navigation.

Additionally, in discharging its functions, the Broads Authority must have regard to:

  • The national importance of the Broads as an area of natural beauty and one which affords opportunities for open-air recreation;
  • The desirability of protecting the natural resources of the Broads from damage; and
  • The needs of agriculture and forestry and the economic and social interests of those who live or work in the Broads.

The Broads Authority is the Local Planning Authority for the Broads. It is responsible for producing this Local Plan, which guides development in the area and is used in determining planning applications.

A primary aspect of the Broads is that it is a nationally designated area, protected and enhanced for the benefit of the nation as well as for the local population and businesses. This is the justification for control of local planning within the designated area to be entrusted to a special purpose body that includes representation of the national interest as well as of local councils and navigators.

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7.4 The Broads Authority Executive Area

Map 1: Broads Authority Executive Area

Map of the Broads

Map of the BroadsThe designated Broads Authority Executive Area covers parts of Norfolk and North Suffolk, as shown in white in Map 1[3]. The area includes parts of Broadland District, South Norfolk District, North Norfolk District, Great Yarmouth Borough, Norwich City, and East Suffolk Council area. The councils for those areas do not have planning powers in the Broads area but retain all other local authority powers and responsibilities. Norfolk County Council and Suffolk County Council are the county planning authority for their respective part of the Broads, with responsibilities that include minerals and waste planning, and are also the Lead Local Flood Authority. The Broads does not sit in isolation; there are important linkages with neighbouring areas in terms of the community and economy – what happens outside the Broads affects the area, and vice versa.

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7.5 The landscape of the Broads

The Broads is much changed by people over time and is of international historic and cultural significance. Having been awarded status equivalent to a national park, the highest status of protection is conferred upon the area’s landscape and natural beauty.

The Broads is a low-lying wetland mosaic of flooded former peat workings (shallow lakes or ‘broads’) of various sizes, river channels, reed swamp, fen, reedbed, carr woodland and drained grazing marsh, arable cultivation with some heath and sand dune. It also includes a small stretch of undeveloped coastline near Horsey and Winterton.

Traditional settlements tend to be on slightly higher ground, with extensive areas of reed beds, grazing marsh, and some carr woodland in and on the edges of the floodplain. There is no general building vernacular, but the traditional villages tend to have a variety of surviving older buildings that may have similar characteristics and be of considerable quality or interest. These settlements are usually clustered near a staithe (traditional landing area), either on a river or connected to it by dyke and surrounded by more modern housing of no particular distinction. That being said, the vernacular of the Broads is evolving. The Broads Authority is open to the potential for modern design that may contribute to the future cultural heritage of the Broads.

On the riverside, around staithes and along the few road accesses to the waterside, are often strings of chalets/bungalows and sometimes grander houses. These display a distinctive palette of a progression of early 20th century architectural styles, including versions of Arts and Crafts, Cottage ornée and mock Tudor particular to the area. There are also boatyards, with buildings of a more utilitarian and industrial character, together with boat mooring basins cut into the marshes, both visually enlivened by boats and their to-ing and fro-ing. These centres of population can be crowded and busy in summer, but population elsewhere in the Broads is sparse.

Drainage mills and isolated farmhouses sparingly punctuate views across the marshland, and the relative absence of fences (because dykes and drains divide the marshes that contain grazing cattle) accentuates its open, flat and empty appearance. Boats, birds, cattle, field gates, willow pollards and reed-fringed ditches are also important features across the area.

It is a landscape of contrast and surprise, with rivers and broads often concealed from immediate view by carr woodland, or extensive views across marshes to distant woodland and settlements, with the presence of an intervening river often only revealed by the procession of a boat’s sail in the middle ground. With its limited road and rail system, much of the Broads feels surprisingly remote and isolated, although footpaths cross the area and boat access is extensive.

It is clear that the unique and special landscape of the Broads is an important asset that many people appreciate and value; indeed, it is the landscape that many visitors come to enjoy. The Local Plan needs to protect and enhance this landscape.

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7.6 The economy of the Broads

Tourism is the mainstay of the Broads’ economy. In 2022, the Broads and surrounding area (including the area of influence) received around 7.2 million visitors, bringing in an estimated £456 million and directly supporting more than 4,999 FTE jobs[4]. The STEAM data for 2020 compares some indicators in 2020 to the same indicators in 2019.

Land and water-based tourism is hugely important in the area. There were around 12,549 registered boats on the Broads in 2022 (11,119 private craft and 1,430 hire craft); many people also enjoy bird watching, walking, cycling, angling, visiting heritage sites and just being near the water. Challenges exist for attracting new generational visitors into areas such as National Parks whilst also fewer younger or new customers are engaging in leisure marine activities. This demographic is looking for, and using, new entry areas such as variations and niche versions of accommodation experiences, canoeing and paddle boarding. Their digital communication preferences and their desire for activities are aligned to short burst experiences to enjoy and share online and are being termed ‘Pay & Play’.

Traditional skills and industry are important to the area. Reed and Sedge Cutters, Thatchers and Millwrights for example, all have an important part to play in the Broads.

Boatyards and other waterside businesses are critical to the enjoyment of the area by tourists and local residents alike, and to the local economy and employment. Although many people come to the Broads as day visitors, provision of holiday accommodation, including a variety of types and locations, is important.

The local economy is not entirely tourism related. Agriculture is the predominant business use in terms of land area, if not in numbers employed or monetary value, and has a vital role in maintaining the landscape and its aesthetic and environmental value. Boat building is also a locally important traditional industry.

Other businesses in the Broads are diverse and tend to be small scale and service related, a notable exception being the large sugar beet processing plant at Cantley on the River Yare.

The Local Plan needs to ensure that the local economy, most of which is rural based, can continue to thrive. The impacts of Covid-19 restrictions on businesses will be important to understand, although it could be that the country bounces back to some extent now that restrictions have eased, and the majority of the population is vaccinated.

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7.7 The natural environment of the Broads

The Broads is one of Europe’s most important wetlands for biodiversity and nature conservation. It is a predominantly freshwater ecosystem made up of meandering rivers connecting beautiful expanses of shallow water known as ‘broads’. The surrounding habitats include botanically rich fens, home to the rare Swallowtail Butterfly, Fen Orchid, and Bittern. The invertebrate and bird rich wet woodlands, and the grazing marshes with their network of unique aquatic plant and animal ditch communities, make the Broads one of the most wildlife rich areas in the National Park family and in the UK. The great importance for biodiversity is reflected in records for the Broads, which indicate:

  • Around 25% of the Broads designated for its international and nationally conservation status
  • 11,067 species
  • 19% of total protected species in the UK and 26% of the UK's Biodiversity Action Plan species and 17% of all nationally notable or scarce species.
  • 1,519 priority species, including 85% of Red and 94% of Amber designated UK Bird species
  • Nineteen Global Red Data Book species
  • A wide range within taxonomic groups: e.g. 403 species of beetle, 251 species of fly and 179 species of moth
  • 66 Broads Speciality species: 14 species entirely, and 17 largely, restricted to the Broads in the UK, and 35 with its primary stronghold in the area

In relation to geodiversity, there are five nationally designated sites (SSSIs covering Pleistocene geology and active coastal processes), but many other local sites of interest have been identified in the Norfolk Geodiversity Audit.

In early 2022, the Broads Authority endorsed the Recreation Impact Avoidance and Mitigation Strategies for Norfolk and Suffolk Coast. The aim of these strategies is that by collecting tariff from overnight accommodation, the funding can be spent strategically to mitigate the impacts of development on Habitat Sites.

In March 2022, the issue of the impact of phosphates and nitrogen on the water quality of Habitat Sites in the Broads SAC and RAMSAR Sites led to the Norfolk LPAs working together to introduce ‘Nutrient Neutrality’. Work continues on mitigation at the time of writing, but permissions for some development in some areas have been delayed.

The Broads is an important area for biodiversity. It is also one of the reasons why people live here, and tourists come to visit. We need to ensure we understand how development can impact biodiversity, so we protect it and look for opportunities to expand and connect habitats, and that we reflect this in the Local Plan.

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7.8 Historic environment and culture of the Broads

The unique quality and distinctiveness of the built environment of the area, its drainage mills, river and waterside settlements and its origins as man-made medieval peat diggings makes the Broads itself arguably one of England’s most extensive industrial monuments. Collectively these features provide the context for individual sites of built and archaeological interest, resulting in a true cultural landscape.

The Broads Authority Executive Area contains over 270 Nationally Listed Buildings, 15 Scheduled Monuments and 25 Conservation Areas. The area has been identified by Historic England as being a site of exceptional potential for waterlogged archaeology, and the Broads Authority maintains a Local List of heritage assets. The Broads is also home to numerous heritage craft including the famous trading wherries, other historic sailing, and motor vessels.

The cultural assets of the Broads are a fragile, precious, and finite resource. While the cultural value of the area can be added to by outstanding new design, its past is documented by the historic environment. It is important that policies are in place to protect, enhance and better understand the historic environment and cultural landscape of the Broads.

It is not only the buildings and the broads that reflect the history of the Broads; so too do the boats (see later) and the traditional skills and industries such as boat building, reed and sedge cutting, millwrighting and thatching.

The Broads is clearly steeped in history, with many important heritage assets. These assets need protecting and appropriately enhancing, and this needs to be reflected in the Local Plan.

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7.9 Navigating the Broads

One of the Broads Authority’s statutory purposes is to protect the interests of navigation. The Broads is one of the most extensive and varied inland waterway systems in the UK, offering 200km of boating on lock-free tidal rivers. The navigation reaches from the quiet headwaters of the Bure, Ant, Thurne and Waveney to the bustling centre of Norwich and coastal resorts of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. The North Walsham and Dilham Canal is partly within the Broads and is a heritage canal.

The Broads Authority Executive Area comprises approximately 3113 ha of water space, including 63 permanently open water bodies covering 843 ha. Many of these water bodies are broads in the traditional sense, having been formed from medieval peat diggings and used as water transport routes linking settlements with the main rivers and tributaries. Others are of more recent and/or different origin, such as at Whitlingham Country Park, which was developed on the site of a gravel quarry. Some broads have public navigation rights, others have more limited access, generally for environmental or land ownership reasons, while some others are landlocked and inaccessible to craft.

As a harbour and navigation authority, the Authority is responsible for the maintenance of the navigation on the waterways, which is entirely funded through income generated by boat tolls. Its duties include health and safety provisions, dredging, management of vegetation, clearance of wrecks and other hazards, signing and marking the waterways, maintaining the network of free 24-hour moorings and providing a ranger service to assist the public and enforce the byelaws, particularly speed limits.

The Broads has been used for navigation for a long time. Navigation is fundamental to the local economy and provides varied health and wellbeing benefits. The Local Plan will need to ensure that navigation is protected and appropriately enhanced.

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7.10 The boats and people who sail them

Visitors taking to the network of rivers and broads find themselves sharing the water space with many types of vessels. These range from heritage sailing river cruisers, canoes and paddle boards to period launches and day boats, some propelled by steam, and dozens of types of nationally and internationally recognised racing/sailing dinghies. There are also the restored and maintained traditional trading wherries and leisure wherries. Boats are hired by the day or week or are privately owned. Boat building, chandlery and repair are significant local industries. This rich boating heritage is probably unrivalled anywhere in the world. The commitment of local people to heritage boats and boating on the Broads is shown in the more than 50 voluntarily run clubs and classes affiliated to the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association.

Boating is a key part of the local economy and has many interrelated land uses that the Local Plan will need to understand and address.

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7.11 The community of the Broads

The resident population of the Broads Authority Executive Area is about 6,300 people. Living in the Broads, particularly close to the water, is highly prized and this is reflected in local house prices. Local communities strongly identify with the area and value its special qualities. The Executive Area covers parts of more than 90 parishes in Norfolk and Suffolk (see Appendix 2)

The National Census 2021 gives these facts and figures about the community of the Broads: 6,275 people live here. The Broads has an older pollution. The majority work full time or are retired with 618 students. 22% are disabled under the Equality Act. The Broads has a population density of 0.2 people per hectare.

The 2019 Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) give an interesting insight into the community of the Broads. The IMD maps for the Broads have been assessed as part of a Deprivation Topic Paper[5] .

Many settlements are split between two Local Planning Authorities, so the Broads Authority needs to ensure that it works with its neighbouring LPAs. The community is an important asset to the area, and its needs will need to be addressed in the Local Plan.

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7.12 Pressures on the Broads

The Broads is a fragile wetland. It is under increasing pressure from a variety of sources, including development both within and adjacent to the Executive Area. In the last century, habitat loss and fragmentation, impact from recreation activities, nutrient enrichment and pollution of the waterways, and increasing threats from non-native species have seen a decline in species and habitats. The Broads Plan and the Broads Biodiversity Action Plan commit the Authority and its partners to halting and reversing this decline in the Broads. Sea level rise and the impacts of a changing climate and pressure on water resources related to new development will also increase pressure on the Broads over time.

The Broads is a popular place to live in and to visit, but with so many important assets such as heritage, landscape and biodiversity, there is the potential for harm to be caused. The Local Plan needs to understand and address the pressures on these assets.

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7.13 Access and recreation

As the UK’s premier wetland, with status equivalent to a National Park and internationally recognised for its landscape, nature conservation and cultural features, the Broads is a popular recreational destination, with miles of open water space and natural, historic and cultural assets to be explored and enjoyed.

Because of its wetland landscape, many parts of the Broads are most easily accessible by water, with the unique experience this brings. It is one of the most extensive inland waterways in the UK, and boating is a major recreational activity, with around 12,000 licensed craft using the navigation area.

There are also recreational opportunities to be enjoyed on land. The area has an extensive rights of way network, with around 303km of public footpaths and 17km of public bridleways available for public use. There are three promoted long-distance routes and a number of circular walks and cycle routes in the area. Approximately 150ha of land in the Broads has been designated as open access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The Broads is also one of the most popular areas in the UK for angling.

Good access and recreation provision in the Broads contributes to the health and wellbeing of local and neighbouring communities and visitors, and is especially important for urban dwellers and people from deprived communities.

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7.14 The special qualities of the Broads

The Broads Plan sets out the special qualities of the Broads.

Over the years, the Authority has asked people to identify the special qualities or features of the Broads they value most. Common responses include:

  • The winding rivers and open water bodies – the ‘broads’
  • The variety of habitats
  • The abundance and rich diversity of wildlife
  • Navigable, lock-free waterways to explore and enjoy
  • The variety of patterns and textures in the landscape
  • Countryside access to both land and water
  • ‘Big sky’ views, dark skies and a sense of remoteness, tranquillity and wildness
  • The people, the visitors, the activities
  • The history and historic environment: Earth heritage, heritage assets, archaeology
  • Boating, boatbuilding and unique heritage fleets
  • Cultural assets, skills and traditions such as thatching and millwrighting
  • People’s interactions with the landscape
  • Waterside settlements and quiet villages