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Tory MPs Welcome Housebuilding Boost Despite Backlash Over Scrapping Environmental Rules

(Alamy)

6 min read

Government has announced plans to ditch EU rules on nutrient neutrality in order to build 100,000 homes across the UK, prompting praise from MPs despite a backlash from opposition parties and environmental groups.

Levelling-up Secretary Michael Gove has claimed that EU laws on nutrient neutrality have previously held the UK’s housing market back, and that scrapping them will allow a significant boost to housebuilding. Many pro-housing campaigners have welcomed the announcement as a step in the right direction. Under existing measures, Natural England have prevented at least 62 councils from building more homes in areas such as Somerset, Norfolk and Teesside.

Retained EU laws currently prevent developers from building new homes in areas which could impact Britain’s rivers - even if a project has planning permission. Scrapping such laws on nutrient neutrality will free up areas for housebuilding near waterways which are currently prohibited.

Government figures have estimated the proposed overhaul of regulations will benefit the UK economy by £18 billion.

However, a number of environmental groups are concerned of the unintended consequences of scrapping EU laws on nutrient neutrality could have for rivers and waterways.

How will this work?

The new rules will be added as amendments to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which is in the House of Lords. The Bill, which had its first reading in May 2022, is currently in the second Report Stage.

Gove's plans to scrap the EU rule in order to build more houses has been welcomed by Tory MPs

Housing is an issue that has consistently divided the Conservative Party over its 13 years in power. 

Any resistance to Gove's proposals could cause the Government to revise the Levelling up Bill again, but so far, many Conservative MPs on both its pro-housebuilding arm and traditional wing of the party that is prone to rebel on new housing measures, appear united in their support for the plan. 

Theresa Villiers, MP for Chipping Barnet, who led a rebellion against Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to scrap housebuilding targets last year, told PoliticsHome she supported the plans.

“It will enable thousands of new homes to be built which are currently blocked, while also securing real progress on cleaning up our waterways. The current rules are too inflexible and have held up schemes which have been given permission at local level," she said. 

“Reform has been needed for years and now it is being delivered in a way which helps more people on to the housing ladder but in a way which is consistent with high environmental standards.”

Damian Green, MP for Ashfield, who supported the Villiers’ amendment, told PoliticsHome he welcomed the measures.

“I am pleased with this combination of allowing house-building with the important money for mitigation measures. We need the houses and this is a way to build them in a way that also protects our rivers,” he explained. 

Former cabinet minister Simon Clarke, MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, who is an outspoken housebuilding advocate, tweeted that the new measures were “really welcome”.

He believed the “flexibility of Brexit” would help Britain build more homes that the country “needed desperately”.

Former cabinet minister Brandon Lewis, MP for Great Yarmouth, told PoliticsHome Gove’s proposals were welcome and a “really good move”. As opposed to theoretical proposals for a long-term plan, Lewis said scrapping nutrient neutrality would allow the Government and developers to build more homes very quickly.

“These are applications that can start moving in the next year. So the country and the potential residents will see the benefit relatively quickly a bit.

“It's not a solution to everything, but it releases 100,000 to 140,000 homes. That's a lot of homes, a lot of jobs and a lot of opportunity.”

Boost for housebuilding

The Government’s decision to scrap the EU’s nutrient neutrality has also been welcomed by pro-development think tanks, who have previously criticised decades of inaction on planning-reform, which they believe has left Britain in the midst of a housing shortage.

Research from Centre for Cities stated that the UK has 4.3 million homes missing from its housing stock. It has claimed it would take 50 years for the Government to meet the current demand for housing even if it met its advisory housing target of 300,000 homes per year.

Freddie Poser, Director at PricedOut told PoliticsHome Gove’s announcement was a “welcome step in the right direction”.

“These rules currently do little to protect our waterways from pollution, whilst blocking 140,000 new homes. The UK is in the middle of a severe housing shortage, the Government's main priority should be getting more homes built,” he said. 

But the plans have sparked concern among environmental groups 

While Government has said it would increase spending to £280 million to deal with the excess nutrient discharge caused by rapid housebuilding, a number of environmental groups are concerned the measure may not be as strong as previous regulations in curbing harm to waterways. 

A major build-up in excess nutrient discharge, including phosphorus and nitrogen, can kill fish in rivers.

Dr Doug Parr, Policy Director for Greenpeace UK, said he believed “scrapping or weakening” limits on chemicals which can flow into waterways was wrong.

“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," he said. 

"But that would require them to do what they’ve spectacularly failed to do so far – forcing water firms and house builders to invest their profits in upgrading treatment plants and pipes to a standard that a modern, functional country would expect.”

Tim Farron, MP for  Westmorland and Lonsdale, and Liberal Democrat Environment spokesperson, said if Government ministers “cared” about Britain’s rivers, they “would clean them up rather than scrapping the few rules in place that protect them”.

"Liberal Democrats would clean up our rivers, while the Tories are happy for them to be clogged with sewage,” Farron added. 

However, Callum Newton, Senior Researcher at centre-right think tank Onward said while river pollution in Britain was a “problem” he did not believe excessive regulation was not the solution.

"The decision to scrap Natural England's nutrient neutrality guidance is a welcome boost for housebuilding,” he told PoliticsHome.

“Pollution in Britain's rivers is a problem, but blocking much-needed homes with impractical red tape is not the answer – instead the Government should focus on supporting farmers to pollute less and reining in water companies."

Statistics from Home Builders Federation found more housebuilding only contributed to 5 per cent towards the phosphate and nitrates for Britain’s rivers.

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