The Government’s plans to weaken legislation surrounding river pollution have been defeated in the House of Lords by a Labour-led rebellion. As the bill was introduced within the levelling up and regeneration bill by the Conservatives at such a late stage, it will not return to the Commons.
Labour had made clear that it would oppose the “reckless” plans by the Conservatives to rip up EU-derived laws on nutrient neutrality, which force developers to mitigate pollution from new developments. The defeat is a victory for Labour, whose deputy leader Angela Rayner led opposition to the plan in her new role as shadow levelling up secretary.
Last week, Rishi Sunak announced that the Government is planning on scrapping EU-era water pollution regulations for new housing developments in the UK. As things stand, building new homes near waterways is problematic in the UK due to the fact developers must prove that their projects are “nutrient neutral”.
The only way to get around this issue is to prove that extra nutrients won’t be added to surrounding waterways as a result of the development – something that is hard to accomplish. Explaining the logic behind the decision to scrap the regulations, Sunak labelled them “disproportionate” and “poorly targeted”.
By scrapping these laws, the government believe that around 100,000 new homes can be built by 2030 – the main incentive behind the decision. However, the attempt to ease the rules, by amending the levelling up and regeneration bill, was defeated by 203 votes to 156, a majority of 47. As the bill cannot return to the Commons, Ministers would need to bring the proposal forward in a new bill.
Michael Gove, the housing secretary, and Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, had pushed for the end of what they termed “defective” EU laws, which require developers to offset any extra nutrient pollution they cause in sensitive areas under the habitats directive. These areas include the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads. This came despite Tory promises not to weaken environmental standards after Brexit and amid fury over the state of English rivers, not one of which passes tests for safe levels of chemical or biological pollution.
It has also been revealed that the Government ignored its own nature watchdog’s advice on scrapping pollution rules. Correspondence from Natural England to Lady Young of Old Scone, a Scottish Labour member of the house, showed that the nature watchdog had said the rule changes were not necessary and that the current scheme was working to deliver homes and reduce nutrients.
The advice from Natural England recommends making developers pay for the pollution “our experience in similar schemes suggests that upfront, fixed-rate contributions from developers could be faster and offer more certainty in enabling planning permissions to be granted and support emerging green finance markets.”
Several large organisations have been very vocal over the past week, and have celebrated last night’s defeat, including The Rivers Trust, The Wildlife and Countryside Link and The Wildlife Trust. For example, Craig Bennett, of the Wildlife Trusts, welcomed Labour’s decision to oppose the attempts to scrap the nutrient neutrality rules, which meant a Government defeat was inevitable.
Moreover, Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said “We are delighted that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Green party all recognise that sustainable development and nature protection can go hand in hand. The government’s old-fashioned approach to development by deregulation has no place in a nature-positive parliament.”
From the Labour Party, MPs have expressed how building homes and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive. Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said that the defeat showed “the Tories have utterly failed in their attempt to score cheap political points with a flawed plan”, adding that the Party “stands ready to sit down with the Government, housebuilders and environmental groups to agree on a workable solution to build the homes we need.”
Shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds said the government had put forward “an entirely bogus dilemma” expressing that a choice between homebuilding and the environment is not one that needs to be made.
The Green party peer Jenny Jones, who helped to lead the rebellion in the Lords, said “If the government is so desperate to add to the unacceptable levels of pollution in the water, they can bring the measures back in a separate bill, as part of the king’s speech. They can then consult properly and justify it to a public who are already fed up with polluted local rivers and beaches. And If I was prime minister, I wouldn’t relish having a conversation with King Charles about the horrendous state of the country’s waterways.
Mirroring Rishi Sunak’s statements at PMQs yesterday, the Levelling up Secretary, Michael Gove, said Labour had ordered peers from its party to block “the dream of homeownership for thousands of families”. “This is despite boasting that Labour would be the party of the builders not the blockers”.
The Government’s attempt to scrap the “nutrient neutral” restrictions for new housing developments near waterways has sparked fierce debate between ministers, environmental groups, opposition parties and housing advocates. Ultimately, this issue highlights the complex balancing act between economic growth and environmental protection, and the need for sustainable solutions that prioritise both as harming the environment is not necessary for building new homes.