You have to feel sorry for Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Actually, you don’t – but it’s difficult, for once, not to have sympathy for the Government in its efforts to cut through the mess created by the regulations concerning ‘nutrient neutrality’ – those that try to ensure that development doesn’t increase phosphate and nitrate levels in watercourses beyond current levels.
Worries in the EU about nutrient neutrality first surfaced in the Netherlands in 2018 in an ECJ court case which decided development should not have significantly adverse effects upon areas of conservation concern. So far, so far good.
However, Natural England picked up on these concerns and, broadly ignoring the ‘significant’ aspects of the ECJ ruling, started issuing formal guidance to local planning authorities about these pollution risks – whether significant or not – and effectively stymieing the building of tens of thousands of homes.
The sector has been howling about these ‘gold plated’ regulations, more stringent than the ‘significant impact’ rule envisaged by the EU, ever since, as the Government itself has acknowledged that the effect of new development on nutrient neutrality is “negligible”.
To quote the Home Builders Federation, Defra’s figures suggest that 60-80% of phosphorus entering rivers comes from a failure of water companies to treat wastewater effectively. This wastewater comes from many sources including the hundreds of thousands of existing homes, plus from transport and commercial operations. Industry has long argued that the additional contribution of new homes each year is negligible in comparison to existing loads.
More water efficient new homes could help reduce the amount of waste water occupants moving from older homes would generate. Defra also acknowledges that “agriculture and wastewater are together the biggest sources of nutrient pollution in the water environment”.
The penny finally dropped for the Government and Gove who, with some fanfare, announced that they would modify the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill with the effect of relaxing the rules at the end of August.
Well: if a week in politics is a long time, then two weeks is a fortnight – and that’s how long it took for Gove’s grand plans to meet a watery fate at the hands of the House of Lords, where a cross coalition led a rebellion in the Lords to defeat the Government in the vote. Gove, of course, blamed Labour yet failed to note the role of Tory Peers such as the Duke of Wellington and Lord Blencathra (ooh, deputy chair of Natural England wouldn’t you know) in his defeat.
Unfortunately for Gove, and the sector, the amendment was introduced at the Report stage of the bill and, having been scuppered by the Lords, it will require new legislation to tackle this topic again.
Given the other current travails of the Government, and Gove – the housing crisis being merely one – it is difficult to see the Parliamentary time being found to bring this legislation to the common, let alone get is past those pesky Lords, and so the (so far and current) 74 LPAs subject to Natural England’s negative guidance on nutrient neutrality won’t be building much new anytime soon.