Housing secretary will table laws ending Natural England’s legal ‘requirement’ to block housebuilding in at risk areas

Housebuilders have welcomed Michael Gove’s announcement of a major deregulation of rules around nutrient neutrality designed to free up construction of over 100,000 homes.

The housing secretary said the government will table an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which will remove the ‘requirement’ on Natural England to advise councils not to approve housing schemes in areas where protected waterways are at risk from pollution.

michael gove

The housing secretary is expected to lay out further details in parliament later today

Gove said the move, coupled with a package of measures designed to protect rivers from nitrate and phosphate pollution, will deliver an £18bn boost to the economy. The house builders Federation executive chairman Stewart Baseley said the move was “very welcome”, while Jennie Daly, chief executive of Taylor Wimpey, said the announcement would “help deliver the country’s much needed new homes”.

However, the decision to water down Natural England’s powers has already sparked intense controversy, given ongoing debate over the state of UK waterways. Greenpeace told the Guardian that the government had “completely given up on saving our great waterways and the precious wildlife they host”, while Craig Bennett, chief executive of conservation group The Wildlife Trusts, accused the government of “disgraceful” lying given earlier promises in Parliament not to lower environmental protections or standards.

He said: “Make no mistake – this is a license from the Government for the commercial housebuilding lobby to profit from the pollution of our rivers.”

Since a 2018 European Court ruling, local authorities have been unable to approve plans for new homes in areas where quango Natural England has advised them protected habitats are in poor condition, given they would be open to legal challenge. Natural England now has such advice in place in 74 councils across England.

The joint announcement from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) and the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) this morning said housebuilders will still be expected to contribute to mitigate their nutrient pollution from new development, with the government doubling the size of the Nutrient Mitigation Fund to £280m, and expecting “larger developers make an appropriate and fair contribution to this scheme over the coming years”.

The statement said DLUHC is discussing “the right structure and approach” for this contribution with the Home Builders Federation. The HBF says nutrient rules are currently holding up development of 150,000 homes in the planning pipeline.

Earlier press reports, suggesting that government was planning to allow councils to decide whether or not to accept to the advice of the environment quango, without fear of having the decision struck down, have not proved to be correct.

Gove is expected to make a statement to Parliament later today laying out further details of the changes, which will include measures to reduce agricultural nutrient pollution with £200m of grants to farmers and more frequent farm inspections (see table below). Housebuilders have always maintained that nutrient pollution in rivers is primarily a problem generated by agricultural practices and poor wastewater treatment infrastructure, with evidence suggesting that new housing contributes around 5% of the problem.

Nutrient pollution reduction measures also announced:

  • Development of Protected Sites Strategies in the catchments most impacted by nutrient neutrality and with the most acute housing pressures. These are bespoke plans agreeing tangible actions to reduce pollution at source, through nature-based solutions such as wetlands.
  • Water companies to upgrade wastewater treatment works to the highest technical standards by 2030. Amendments already announced and tabled to the LURB will require this.
  • Conducting at least 4,000, inspections on farms each year to ensure that slurry and other sources of nutrients are being minimised.
  • Supporting farmers with £200m in grants for improved slurry storage infrastructure and precision spreading equipment to reduce run-off.
  • Investing £25m to drive innovation to help farmers manage plant and soil nutrients.
  • Introducing from 2024 payment premiums into our environmental land management schemes. This will incentivise options that provide benefits for water quality.
  • River Wye action plan this Autumn to tackle the unique issues in Herefordshire.
  • Consulting this year on new requirement for Sustainable Drainage Solutions to reduce pressure on storm overflows from new homes.

Listed housebuilder share prices initially rose around 3% this morning on the news, with Persimmon rising by 3.5%, before falling back slightly.

Michael Gove said he was making the changes because “the way EU rules have been applied has held us back”. He said the reform would provide a “multi-billion pound boost for the UK economy” and prompt construction of more than 100,000 new homes, but maintained that protecting the environment was nonetheless “paramount”.

“The measures we’re announcing today will allow us to go further to protect and restore our precious waterways whilst still building the much-needed homes this country needs,” he said.

“We will work closely with environmental agencies and councils as we deliver these changes.”

The HBF’s Stewart Basely said the announcement would be “much needed good news” for builders on the verge of being driven out of business, who would be able to get “spades in the ground”. He said: “Today’s very welcome announcement has the potential to unlock housing delivery where housebuilding has been blocked despite wide acknowledgement that occupants of new homes are responsible for only a tiny fraction of the wastewater finding its ways into rivers and streams.

‘The industry is eager to play its part in delivering mitigation and protecting our waterways. We look forward to engaging with government on the right way to do so.”

However, the introduction of the measure proposed by Gove is dependent upon the passing of the mammoth Levelling Up and Regeneration bill, which is currently being held up in the Lords due to opposition to many of the government’s proposed planning reforms. An industry source said many in the sector were in private giving the government’s initiative only a “guarded welcome” amid fears it may never see the light of day.

David Thomas, CEO of Barratt said the firm had 2,500 homes currently stalled in the planning pipeline due to the nutrients crisis, and so welcomed the initiative. He said: “Alongside plans to mitigate the relatively limited impact of new build housing, we welcome the further commitment to tackling nutrient pollution at source in agriculture and industry and the much needed planned improvements in our water infrastructure.”

Taylor Wimpey’s Jennie Daly said: “We are pleased that the Government is proposing to address this important issue and is taking steps to reduce barriers to development. This will help deliver the country’s much needed new homes, which make a significant contribution to the wider economy.”

Colin Wood, CEO of SME builder Story Homes, which employs around 350 people, also welcomed the news. He said: “The plan unlocks over 4000 homes for our business creating a huge boost for the local economies and supply chains, all whilst facilitating delivery of much needed housing.”

Building Design’s sister publication Housing Today has called on the government to act strategically to deal with the issue of nutrient neutrality through its  A Fair Deal for Housing campaign,