The much-debated, entrenched problem of new house-building being held up by water-based environmental concerns in England and Wales rumbles on – and we regret to report on further attempts in Whitehall to resolve nutrient neutrality having floundered (again).
In August, Michael Gove MP (Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities) revealed plans to legislate to remove an obligation for Natural England to provide advice to English local planning authorities against approving new housing where water may be threatened by pollution (especially illegal sewage discharges). House-builders are wrongly pilloried for causing nitrate & phosphate pollution when the vast majority of nutrients in rivers comes from livestock agriculture or the years of failings by water companies.
Unfortunately, the DLUHC announcement was bungled and inaccurate reporting by the BBC and others served only to antagonise (a) wildlife & nature charities and (b) house-builders. Unless & until the law is changed, Natural England’s guidance to local councils to assess all applications to guard against pollution from nitrates & phosphates remains in force. SME builders may have contacted their local council in the vain hope their stalled applications will be revived: they won’t.
In September, ministers tabled amendments to their Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill which was being scrutinised in the House of Lords. The aim was to dis-apply the consideration of nutrient flows from urban wastewater as part of Habitats Regulations Assessments when deciding whether (or not) to grant planning permission. Whitehall thought this would rectify the much-debated nutrient neutrality problem that holds back an estimated 120,000+ new homes. But ministers met stiff resistance in the House of Lords where Labour, Lib Dem, Greens and environmentalists like Lord (Zac) Goldsmith voted against the proposals to defeat the Government by 47 votes.
During the Autumn Party Conferences, the BMF, the Home Builders Federation and others lobbied on the urgent need to resolve nutrient neutrality – because merchants’ sales in the affected districts are down – and desperately needed homes are not being completed. Brett Amphlett (BMF Policy & Public Affairs’ Manager) raised this issue with Tim Farron MP (Lib Dem DEFRA Spokesman), Ruth Jones MP & Baroness Sue Hayman (Labour Shadow DEFRA Ministers) and several Tory MPs in whose constituency there are stalled sites. Each talked a good game and acknowledged the scale & seriousness of the sewage problem – but the Labour Party’s position is rather shaky following its shortsighted, opportunistic decision to switch to vote against the Government’s proposals.
In addition to politicians, Brett spoke to the National Farmers’ Union and Fergal Sharkey, both heavily involved in the sewage debate, from different ends of the spectrum. Many readers will remember Fergal as the lead singer in “The Undertones” from 1975 to 1983 before becoming a successful solo artist. He is a keen angler and devotes his time to campaign against the water companies and the weak response (as he sees it) from OFWAT the regulator and the Environment Agency.
At the end of October, national newspapers reported that Downing Street had given up trying to fix this prior to the General Election. The political calculation is that there is insufficient time to push through difficult, controversial legislation before Polling Day. In November, this was confirmed when the King’s Speech was revealed – with no mention of any fresh legislation. This is bitterly disappointing, but the BMF and Home Builders Federation continue to lobby on this nonetheless. The one crumb of comfort is at least this way, the current government won’t mess it up again. Looks like a decisive General Election result in 6-9 months’ time is the only way to make progress.