Environmental campaigners have hit out at the Government after it confirmed that EU-era restrictions that force housebuilders to mitigate the impact new developments have on river health are set to be scrapped under plans to provide an additional 100,000 new homes in England by 2030.
The Government said the measure could provide an £18 billion boost to the economy, and that housing developments contribute only a small fraction of nutrient pollution and new funding is being provided to mitigate any associated increase
But environmental campaigners accused the Government of going back on its word and suggested the change would allow developers to cut corners, with the chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts branding it a “disgraceful move”.
Speaking on a visit to a new-build housing estate near Norwich, the Prime Minister told broadcasters that the boost to housebuilding would be “fantastic for young, first-time buyers”.
Current nutrient neutrality rules prevent developers from building houses in protected areas when it would add harmful substances like nitrogen and phosphorus into nearby rivers and lakes, because such nutrients can cause algal blooms that deprive other plants and animals of light and oxygen.
Under legislation derived from the EU, Natural England currently issues guidance to 62 local authority areas, requiring new developments to be nutrient neutral in their area, meaning developers must demonstrate and fund mitigation to win planning approval in certain areas.
This requirement will be watered down to become guidance under the changes being proposed.
Instead, changes will see the financial burden to mitigate nutrient pollution for new housing shifted from developers to taxpayers, with the Government saying it would double investment in its nutrient mitigation scheme, being run by Natural England, to £280 million. And a further £166 million will be allocated for slurry infrastructure grants.
The Government says it intends to work with the housebuilding industry to ensure that larger developers make what it describes as an appropriate and fair contribution to the scheme over the coming years.
No detail on that has been announced, but the Government said it is discussing how to do so with the Home Builders Federation.
The changes are being proposed via an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which is currently going through the House of Lords, with the Government saying it could see additional homes being built in a matter of months.
The Government describes nutrient pollution as an “urgent problem” for freshwater habitats, many of which it says are “internationally important for wildlife”, and acknowledges it needs to tackle the issue to meet legal commitments to restore species abundance.
Housing Secretary Michael Gove said: “We are committed to building the homes this country needs and to enhancing our environment. The way EU rules have been applied has held us back. These changes will provide a multibillion-pound boost for the UK economy and see us build more than 100,000 new homes.
“Protecting the environment is paramount which is why the measures we’re announcing today will allow us to go further to protect and restore our precious waterways whilst still building the much-needed homes this country needs.
“We will work closely with environmental agencies and councils as we deliver these changes.”
Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said: “These new plans will cut nutrients and help support England’s precious habitats whilst unlocking the new homes that local communities need.
“We are going to tackle the key causes of nutrients at source with over £200 million of funding to reduce run-off from agriculture and plans to upgrade waste water treatment works through conventional upgrades, catchment approaches and nature-based solutions.
“This builds on the key commitments made in our five-year strategy – our Environmental Improvement Plan – as well as our Plan for Water which brings forward more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to protect our rivers.”
Chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, Craig Bennett, said: “In May, June and July, the Government made promises to the British people and to Parliament that they would not lower environmental protections or standards.
“But just a few weeks later they are planning to do precisely the opposite. They lied – this is a disgraceful move which undermines public trust in this Government.
“Make no mistake – this is a license from the Government for the commercial housebuilding lobby to profit from the pollution of our rivers. Vague offers of money as compensation are not the same as a legislative requirement – and even the existing rules are extremely modest.”
Policy director for Greenpeace UK, Dr Doug Parr said: “Who would look at our sickly, sewage-infested rivers and conclude that what they need is weaker pollution rules? No-one.
“Scrapping or weakening limits on chemicals from sewage and farm run-offs would be a sure sign that ministers have completely given up on saving our great waterways and the precious wildlife they host.
“Instead of allowing house builders to cut corners, the Sunak administration should make sure we have the right infrastructure to handle our sewage so we can build new homes without sacrificing our rivers’ health.”
Conservative former environment secretary Theresa Villiers said she welcomed the plan, as did Tory former housing secretary Simon Clarke.
Mr Clarke said on X, formerly known as Twitter, “This is NOT an attack on nature. New homes aren’t the problem – it’s poor management by our water companies and (to some extent) farming practices.”
Shares in housebuilders rose sharply on the London market at the prospect of strict planning rules being eased, marking a welcome boost for the sector which has been under pressure in recent weeks given signs of a slowdown and price falls in the property market as surging mortgage costs weigh on buyer demand.
Charles Church builder Persimmon saw its stock jump more than 4% on the FTSE 100 Index, with Barratt Developments up 3% and Taylor Wimpey nearly 3% higher.
Executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation Stewart Baseley said: “Today’s very welcome announcement has the potential to unlock housing delivery across the country, from Cornwall to the Tees Valley, where housebuilding has been blocked despite wide acknowledgement that occupants of new homes are responsible for only a tiny fraction of the wastewater finding its ways into rivers and streams.
“The industry is eager to play its part in delivering mitigation and protecting our waterways. We look forward to engaging with Government on the right way to do so, now that ministers are acting upon the arguments that builders both large and small have been making for so long.”
Published: by Radio NewsHub