An amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, currently going through parliament, will remove the requirement for developers to demonstrate nutrient neutrality for their schemes.
Excess nutrient in waterways leads to green algae, destroying habitats and wildlife. However, most of the troublesome nitrates come agriculture – from an accumulation of chemical fertilisers in the soil – not construction.
Rulings from the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2019 put a new interpretation on how the Habitats Directive should be interpreted. This prompted Natural England to issue new guidance in June 2019. House-building ground to a halt in 74 local authority areas where river catchments fed in to protects wetlands.
The government hopes that ending the nutrient neutrality requirement will mean developers can begin construction on their blocked homes within a few months.
To address pollution concerns, the government says that it will double its investment in Natural England’s nascent Nutrient Mitigation Scheme to £280m. The government hopes to work with the house-building industry to get larger developers to make “an appropriate and fair contribution to this scheme over the coming years.
It is also upping payments to farmers from £34m to £200m in grants for improved slurry storage infrastructure and precision spreading equipment to reduce run-off.
Secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities 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 multi-billion 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.”
The environmental measures announced today lead on from the Government’s Plan for Water published in April which set out actions to address all sources of water pollution, including through accelerating £2.2bn of water company infrastructure investment to prevent storm overflow discharges and improve drought resilience, and unlimited fines for environmental polluters.
The current EU-derived regulations have required Natural England to issue guidance to 62 local authority areas that new development must be ‘nutrient neutral’ in their area, including Somerset, Norfolk, Teesside, Kent, Wiltshire and the Solent. This has blocked or delayed new development – including around a large number of homes that already have planning permission and local communities have already said they want.
The amendment today will remove this requirement, allowing Natural England greater freedom to develop catchment-specific solutions to the causes of nutrient pollution in partnership with each community, supported by government and private investment.
Richard Beresford, chief executive of the National Federation of Builders (NFB), said: “The government has been getting the nutrient neutrality strategy wrong for five years and therefore it is correct that they reassess their approach. Despite housebuilding not being the major polluter and implementing many strategies, have been bending over backwards to reduce pollution. We hope this is the start of a process which fixes the pollution issue and doesn’t disproportionately blame and tax the housebuilding industry.”
Lawrence Turner, director of Boyer (part of Leaders Romans Group), said: “The government’s announcement this morning could unblock over 100,000 homes via a proposed amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. This could see developers breaking ground on these new housing projects within mere months.
“Indeed, while it’s important to acknowledge the environmental issue of river nutrient levels, the small contribution from new housing developments is wildly disproportionate to the current nutrient neutrality laws.
“Today’s announcement will unlock the delivery of new homes, many of which have already been consented by local authorities. This will hopefully enable new homes to be constructed without the need for developers to fallow large swathes of farmland that takes valuable agricultural land out of production.”
Barratt Developments chief executive David Thomas said: “As the leading national sustainable house-builder, we welcome the government’s commitment to tackle the disproportionate rules preventing much-needed and efficient new homes from being built including 2,500 Barratt currently has stalled. Alongside plans to mitigate the relatively limited impact of new build housing, we welcome the further commitment to tackling nutrient pollution at source in agriculture and industry and the much needed planned improvements in our water infrastructure.”
Taylor Wimpey chief executive Jennie Daly said: “We are pleased that the government is proposing to address this important issue and is taking steps to reduce barriers to development. This will help deliver the country’s much needed new homes, which make a significant contribution to the wider economy.”
Story Homes chief executive Colin Wood said: “Story Homes welcome today’s government announcement which is monumental for house-building impacted by nutrient neutrality. The plan unlocks over 4000 homes for our business creating a huge boost for the local economies and supply chains, all whilst facilitating delivery of much needed housing. Hundreds of jobs in the wider supply chain will be safeguarded as a result. The approach from the government achieves all this whilst delivering significant environmental measures to tackle the nutrient issue at source.”
The other side
Those who are more interested in combatting pollution than building houses have a noticeably different perspective. The Rivers Trust said: “The latest plans to rip up water pollution rules show, once again, that our government is backtracking on the environment and taking decisions that abandon previous commitments and promises, and ones which our European neighbours enjoy. We do not need to choose between new homes and clean water, we can have both.
“Now is the time to develop homes responsibly, working with house builders who want to find positive solutions to achieving nutrient neutrality. Our own specialists have demonstrated how nature based solutions across catchments can solve our nutrient problems, whilst also tackling climate change and declining nature – let’s use them. The government must show the way, by keeping hold of legal protections and retaining the principle of the polluter pays, rather than the taxpayer pays, so that water companies and house-builders invest in natural solutions to protect our precious waterways while delivering modern, functional homes.”
Paul Miner, head of campaigns and policy at CPRE, said: “We recognise the need for new, affordable and energy efficient homes. But they should not be delivered at the expense of our natural environment.
“Michael Gove’s plans to relax nutrient neutrality rules represent a huge threat to our waterways, a fundamental feature of our countryside as well as a vital wildlife habitat and vanguard against the extremes of climate change.
“Net nutrient neutrality rules exist to prevent developers from cutting corners and to promote best practice. It’s a crucial measure that ensures that new homes are delivered in a way that doesn’t add to an already toxic maelstrom of environmental crises.
“When measures like net nutrient neutrality cease to be statutory in planning, they’re invariably discarded by most developers, with taxpayers set to foot the environmental burden of new homes instead.
“We need stronger enforcement of the rules over both the farming and housebuilding sectors. For the sake of our countryside and natural environment, we urge Michael Gove to rethink these damaging and regressive proposals.”
Clean water campaigner Feargal Sharkey said: “A very close friend of mine has just sent me a text, ‘What has this government got against clean water?’ Damned good question.”