Government defeated over bid to scrap water-pollution rules for housing

Labour peers in the House of Lords voted down the government’s amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill late last night (13 September). The amendment would have scrapped laws on nutrient neutrality, which stop new developments being built if they lead to higher levels of phosphates and nitrates in waterways.

Labour’s shadow levelling-up secretary Angela Rayner had earlier warned that Labour peers would vote down the government’s amendment if its own alternative amendment was not accepted.

]There are far better ways to build the new homes we desperately need than green-lighting water pollution,’ she wrote on X (formerly Twitter).

The Tories (that’s you @michaelgove) are being thoroughly disingenuous in suggesting that the only way we can build the homes we need in sensitive river catchment areas is by weakening environmental law. Don’t fall for it.’

The government had argued that 100,000 homes would be built before 2030 if its amendment was passed. That is equal to 16,500 a year, or 5.5 per cent of the 300,000 homes promised annually under the 2019 manifesto, but not yet delivered.

Architects questioned the government’s motives in comments to the AJ. Archio director Kyle Buchanan said: ‘Delivering an adequate supply of new homes without destroying the environment or our built and natural heritage is a challenging task but one that that is absolutely achievable with clear thinking and strategic leadership from central and local government.

‘This flip-flopping and lack of leadership from government means we once again have the worst of both worlds, where housing starts are delayed and the natural world is thrown to the dogs to appease the lobbyists.’

The Labour amendment to the bill called for a public consultation on reforming ‘nutrient neutrality’ legislation so that house-building would not have ‘any detrimental impact on the natural environment’ – including increasing run-off of phosphates and nitrates.

Under the government’s proposed changes, local authorities would have been asked to assume that new house-building did not increase levels of pollutants even if this was not the case.

Since the nutrient neutrality law came into effect in 2019, the Home Builders Federation (HBF) estimates that more than 41,000 houses have been blocked each year, meaning the number of paused homes could be as high as 145,000.

More than 70 local authorities have so far been forced to provide evidence that new housing schemes will not increase levels of phosphates and nitrates into nearby waterways.

In January 2022, the UK’s Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC) found that only 14 per cent of rivers were in ‘good’ ecological condition. The rest are subject to chemical, agricultural and road pollution, among other sources.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill – which also includes changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – will go before MPs in the Commons before the end of the year without the nutrient-neutrality changes.

Udates in the bill include a focus on ‘building beautiful’, and the removal of five-year housing targets, which the RIBA has previously called into question.

An amendment tabled by Daniel Mosley, a crossbench hereditary peer and an engineer at Atkins, which made climate mitigation and adaptation a legal priority within planning policy was accepted by the Lords earlier this week.