Sir Keir Starmer has been accused of “flip-flopping from being a builder to a blocker” as Labour prepares to vote against Government plans to relax environmental rules in order to boost housebuilding.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the Labour leader was taking a “cheap political hit” by opposing reforms he said would “unlock over 100,000 homes”.
The House of Lords is set to vote on Wednesday evening on scrapping EU-era rules that force housebuilders to mitigate the impact development has on river health.
But with Labour peers poised to vote against the change, being proposed through an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, it is likely to be defeated in the Upper House.
Downing Street emphasised that “the stakes are quite high” as the issue will not return to the Commons.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Mr Sunak attacked Sir Keir’s position.
Laying out the Government’s planned reforms to the Levelling Up Bill, he told MPs: “He (Sir Keir) talks about trust, he tried in this House to talk the talk on housebuilding, but at the first sign of a cheap political hit, what did he do? He has caved in.
“Rather than make the right long-term decisions for the country he has taken the easy way out. It is typical of the principles-free, conviction-free type of leadership that he offers.
“Flip-flopping from being a builder to a blocker. The British people can’t trust a word he says.”
Sir Keir’s spokesman rejected the charge, saying the Government’s plans were “rushed and flawed”.
“We do have serious concerns about the way in which the changes the Tories are proposing will harm our waterways and ecosystems,” he said.
“The Tories are being thoroughly disingenuous to suggest that this is the only way we can build the homes we need in sensitive river catchment areas. No-one should fall for what they are saying.
“It is not a point of dispute between us that the nutrient neutrality rules are making it challenging to secure consent for new housing developments. The status quo isn’t an option, but there are far better ways to build new homes we desperately need rather than greenlighting water pollution in the way that the Tories’ proposals would do.”
The Government set out plans to axe “nutrient neutrality” rules last month, which currently mean developers building new homes in protected areas are required to provide mitigations to ensure no new additional nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus make it into rivers and lakes.
Ministers argued that watering down the requirement would have a negligible impact on pollution, but environmental campaigners disagreed.
Setting out Labour’s alternative approach in a Times article, shadow housing secretary Angela Rayner and shadow environment secretary Steve Reed said the party would allow houses stuck in the planning process to be built, but force developers to take steps to counteract any environmental harm before they are occupied.
“We must build the homes people need while also protecting the environment we live in,” the Labour frontbenchers wrote.
Sir Keir’s spokesman urged ministers to back Labour’s amendment, which he said “deals with the issue, would allow the construction to go ahead and also have better environmental protections”.
Echoing Mr Sunak’s words in the Commons, the Prime Minister’s press secretary told reporters in Westminster that Sir Keir’s decision “will be devastating for a hundreds of thousands of British families waiting for homes”.
She said: “I think you can see the kind of political games being played that even his former housing secretary referred to not taking decisions to build housing as cowardice, and even Labour council leaders have been writing to the Government urging us to take these steps to ensure houses that have local consent are built in these areas.”
Lisa Nandy, who was shadow housing secretary until last week, had indicated she was preparing to support the Government’s change.
Asked whether the amendment could return to the Commons if the Government loses the vote, Mr Sunak’s press secretary said: “My understanding is no, we can’t return to it. So the stakes are quite high … the next few hours will determine 100,000 homes.”
The Liberal Democrats are also set to vote against easing water pollution rules in the Lords.
The party’s spokesperson for communities and local government Baroness Pinnock said: “The Government’s plans to remove pollution rules is an outright disregard for British water quality, and the Liberal Democrats are fighting against them by voting to maintain water quality standards.
“A vote for (Housing Secretary Michael) Gove’s plan is a vote against clean rivers, we must stop the Conservative government from continuing to allow our rivers to be overrun with pollution. We must – and will – hold the Government to account.”
Published: by Radio NewsHub