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Gove waters down pollution rules to boost housebuilding

By Robyn Evans
29 August 2023
Community & Stakeholder Engagement
Corporate Reputation
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Gove waters down pollution rules to boost housebuilding  

The UK Government has today announced a major rewriting of rules on waterway pollution and housing developments as part of its efforts to ease the housing crisis.

Natural England currently lays down regulations for local planning authorities to ensure housebuilding achieves ‘nutrient neutrality"’, meaning a development or project does not dangerously increase nutrient levels in local wetlands and waterways in protected areas.

These rules are now set to become guidance instead, giving local leaders a choice to either adhere to or ignore it when signing off new housing projects. The government intends to implement this change through an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, currently going through the House of Lords. 

The rules, which back date to 2017 and were introduced when the UK was still part of the EU, have been criticised by developers and some Tory MPs for hampering housebuilding, with the Home Builders Federation claiming that the restrictions cut housing supply by 41,000 homes a year.  

The government says that over 100,000 new homes could be built between now and 2030 if the rules are loosened, bringing an estimated £18 billion boost to the economy. The prospect of a quick resolution has been welcomed by developers, with the government stating that construction could begin on these new homes in a matter of months.

Making the announcement, Housing Secretary Michael Gove insisted that “protecting the environment is paramount”, as he also unveiled a raft of new environmental measures to reduce pollution in other ways. As well as doubling Natural England’s wetland funding to £280 million, the new measures will target farming and water companies to restore protected waterways.

The government’s view is that water pollution from new homes is minimal and will be offset by these additional measures, which it hopes will go some way in helping to nullify opposition to its plans. Despite this, the move has still drawn criticism from some environmentalists who have recently ramped up campaigns against sewage spills and agricultural pollution. Some have argued that the relaxation of the rules will come at the expense of the natural environment and ultimately does not solve the root cause of the housing crisis.

The Conservative government has pledged to build 300,000 new homes every year by the mid-2020s, and pressure has been mounting on ministers to find a way to accelerate housebuilding amid Labour’s pledge to prioritise it as a major issue for the party. Responding to today’s announcement, Labour’s shadow housing secretary Lisa Nandy has argued that the Conservatives are failing on both housing and the environment, and that housebuilders should not be asked to cover for the government’s “abject failure” on environmental policy.

Ms Nandy reiterated Labour’s support for a strategic approach to housebuilding, with plans to restore local housing targets which were previously dropped by Sunak’s government. It was reported over the weekend that Sir Keir Starmer is set to make pro-building reforms a key part of his pitch at the Labour Party conference in the autumn. The Labour leader has said that if successful at the next general election, his party would empower local councils to build on green belt land in more circumstances than they are currently able to.

Sir Keir has previously promised to take on planning reform to “back the builders, not the blockers” and deliver the new homes and infrastructure that the country needs. Starmer’s team has been working with the Shadow Housing Minister to draw up detailed plans for an overhaul of planning rules to produce up to 100,000 more new homes a year. This reportedly includes plans for new towns and suburbs and for a handful of nationally significant developments in areas with potential for high economic growth.

Indeed, water pollution is not the only barrier to housebuilding, with growing calls for increased public sector investment and streamlining of the planning process. Today’s announcement will be seen by some as a quick fix to help Rishi Sunak meet his one million new homes manifesto commitment, rather than a long-term solution to tackling the housing shortage.