The housing secretary Michael Gove is planning a major change to rules on waterway pollution in a bid to build thousands more homes in England. The so-called ‘nutrient neutrality’ rules, which aim to limit pollution in our rivers, have been criticised by developers and some Conservative MPs for blocking much-needed housebuilding. The government hopes the move, which is coming in an amendment to the forthcoming levelling up bill, will allow 100,000 new homes to be built by 2030.
More U-turns from the ruling party
Earlier this year, the government promised the public it wouldn’t row back on environmental commitments. Yet, once again, it delivers another broken promise, and another blow to efforts to clean up our rivers. Only recently, we had Conservative MPs ignoring calls for water companies to clean up their act. And now, nutrient neutrality (dumping human waste) will become only ‘optional’ as far as new house building is concerned.
The current rules require Natural England – the government’s advisor on the environment– to advise councils not to approve housing schemes in areas where protected waterways are at risk from pollution. It won’t be long before the government renders Natural England, along with its own environment watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (the OEP), utterly toothless. In response to the latest backtracking on climate commitments, Greenpeace said the government had “completely given up on saving our great waterways and the precious wildlife they host”. The OEP described the new rules as “a regression”. Even the stolid RSPB were moved to describe the government as “liars”, though they did later backtrack from this portrayal.
The government is systematically destroying our natural environment with this attack on our protected landscapes. We are in a race to the bottom in terms of how we look after our bit of the planet – motivated simply by the premise that the fewer regulations there are, the more houses will get built (and the more rivers will get polluted). The reality is that reducing regulation will simply mean more profits for the housing companies. In the 8 hours following the announcement of the change, stocks of three of the major house developers had gained almost half a billion pounds in value.
The greenest government ever?
If this government was serious about its pledge to be the greenest government ever, then it would have taken action to ensure the upgrade of our woefully inadequate sewage treatment works before building work commences. Only then would the system be capable of processing the additional flows from these new housing developments. But instead of compelling developers to fund mitigation works, the proposed changes will see these costs met by the public purse.
The Nutrient Mitigation Scheme run by Natural England is set to receive double its usual funding, up to £280mn. But this is closing the door after the horse has bolted. In other words, pollute first, and promise to clean up afterwards. In the meantime, the privately owned water companies and now the housing developers will be getting a boost to their profits, as they won’t be held liable for cleaning up the mess they make. And there is nothing to stop the government quietly reducing or removing this funding in the future.
This isn’t the solution to the housing crisis
Analysis by the Local Government Association in 2021 revealed that over 1.1 million homes that have been granted planning permission in England in the last decade have yet to be built. Developers were essentially waiting for the government to get rid of expensive environmental protections that reduce their profits. But, in any case, relaxing the rules to give developers easier routes to getting planning permission isn’t the answer to the housing crisis. Developers prefer to build expensive, detached, ‘executive’ houses, as these return higher profits, and allowing these to be built in protected areas will not solve the crisis.
The government should penalise developers who don’t go ahead and build after obtaining planning permission. Rather than leaving the type of housing we build to the whims of developers, the government should compel local councils to build more council houses and genuinely affordable homes in a sustainable and environmentally sound fashion. What’s required is proper investment in local authorities and housing associations to build houses where they are most needed and for those that most need them. Relying on the private sector to address the housing crisis will never work – their priority will always be lower regulations and increased profits. That system has to end.
Government greenwashing benefits house builder profits
The evidence is clear to see that all over this country, we have rivers that are already functionally dead. Yet the government somehow concludes that weaker pollution rules are required. Its green commitments are mere window dressing.
Unsurprisingly, developers are pleased. The big housebuilding companies (all major donors to the Tory Party) have risen to the top of the FTSE100 following the announcement that irksome restrictions on building have been removed and they will no longer have to pay for the increased pollution they will be permitted to cause.