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Labour Curveball Could Force Government To Reshape Plan To Scrap Nutrient Neutrality Rule

Angela Rayner and Keir Starmer pictured in September 2023 (Alamy)

3 min read

Labour could force the government into reshaping its plan to scrap EU pollution laws in order to boost housebuilding, even if the proposals are backed in the House of Lords as the Levelling Up Bill makes its way through parliament.

A government amendment to the Levelling Up Bill which would remove the need for housebuilders to prove they are not contaminating rivers in certain parts of the country will be discussed by the Lords on Wednesday. Ministers argue that the EU rule on nutrient neutrality prevents developers from building new homes in certain areas. Peers have indicated that if they were to vote down the amendment tonight, parliamentary procedure would mean that MPs would get no further say on the issue. 

Labour has now put forward its own proposals to counter the government’s attempt to get rid of  the EU nutrient neutrality rules even if peers do end up voting it through. 

The rules currently mean that in certain parts of the country, housebuilders must prove that their projects are ‘nutrient neutral’ and not contaminating waterways . 

Instead of scrapping the rules entirely – which ministers believe could result in an extra 100,000 homes by 2030 – if accepted, Labour’s amendment would force the government to produce a public consultation on updating nutrient neutrality laws to increase housebuilding “without any detrimental impact on the natural environment”. 

If this amendment is not passed, shadow levelling up secretary Angela Rayner has said that Labour peers will vote against the government’s plans. 

Writing for The Times today, Rayner accused the government of being “reckless and irresponsible” by taking the approach to “weaken environmental law”.  

Labour believe the consultation would force the government into considering other options than scrapping the rules outright.  

According to the text of the amendment, any consultation must consider a number of things, including possible amendments to the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, as well as proposals to make nutrient neutrality mitigation a pre-condition of planning permission that must be fulfilled before work starts.

In her Times piece today, Rayner said that there are “better ways” to get more homes built “than green lighting water pollution”. 

One solution she suggested was allowing local authorities to “approve planning applications held up by nutrient neutrality rules” through conditions that mean measures would be put in place to “counteract any environmental harm before those homes are occupied”. 

Labour is conscious of the numbers needed for their amendment to pass, and believe the outcome of the votes will depend on whether there has been a particular push for government peers to attend and vote today.

Green Party peer Baroness Jenny Jones has called on Labour to block the government's amendment today. 

“I have a growing confidence that we can win this vote if Labour work with other Opposition peers to stop these destructive plans, which are driven by developer donations to the Conservative Party,” she said. 

It is expected that any votes on the nutrient neutrality issue are likely to be held on Wednesday evening. 

The plan to scrap nutrient neutrality rules, announced last month, has been welcomed by Conservative MPs, and ministers claim it could lead to an additional 100,000 homes being built by the end of this decade. 

However, green groups were critical, including Greenpeace which said that the government should “make sure we have the right infrastructure to handle our sewage so we can build new homes without sacrificing our rivers’ health”.

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