Plans to relax regulations on pollution for new housing developments have been widely condemned by environmental groups who have accused the Government of backtracking on its commitments to clean up the UK’s rivers.
Current restrictions prevent developments from going ahead that will increase the level of nutrient pollution in waterways unless builders can remove nutrients elsewhere, such as by creating new wetlands, retrofitting drains or even buying up farmland and letting it sit idle.
The Government said these rules are a legacy of EU membership and it wants to remove them by amending upcoming legislation in the hope of allowing up to 100,000 more homes to be built before 2030.
Nutrient pollution comes from sewage, wastewater, fertilisers and animal waste and can cause large algal blooms that feed on the added nitrogen and phosphates so vigorously that other plants and animals are deprived of light and oxygen.
New homes mean more people flushing toilets and showering which potentially adds more harmful nutrients, and while the Government said pollution from new homes is “very small”, environmental groups say it is prioritising housebuilding over cleaning up rivers.
Martin Salter, policy lead at the Angling Trust, said: “Politics is about choices and the Government have chosen to side with the polluters rather than maintain vital protections for our beleaguered rivers and watercourses.
“Of course, if they were actually serious about their pledge to be the greenest government ever, our woefully inadequate sewage treatment works would have already been upgraded and would be more than capable of processing the additional flows from new housing schemes to a standard acceptable in a modern country.”
Instead of compelling developers to fund mitigation works, the proposed changes would see the taxpayer funding them instead, with the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme run by Natural England set to receive double funding, up to £280 million.
Housing Secretary Michael Gove said: “Protecting the environment is paramount, which is why 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.
“We will work closely with environmental agencies and councils as we deliver these changes.”
Ben Derbyshire, former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, disputed the argument that nutrient neutrality restrictions have prevented houses from being built.
They are instead eating into profit margins with higher costs, he said, which would be less of a problem if housebuilders did not drastically overpay for land.
He told the PA news agency: “I think all of this is a distraction. I would hate to impugn the motives of a senior politician but it’s obviously important to be seen to be doing something.
“At the moment, we are in this race to the bottom, which is predicated on the idea that the fewer regulations there are, the more houses get built. The reality is the fewer regulations there are, the more profit speculative housebuilders can make.”
Gemma Cantelo, head of policy and advocacy with RSPB England, said: “This expressed disdain runs utterly counter to our national and international nature commitments, in a country that is already one of the most nature depleted in the world.
“It’s a dismal approach that will see wildlife suffer and our rivers will continue to die. That’s bad for nature, bad for people and bad for the economy.”
The Home Builders Federation welcomed the Government’s decision to accept arguments that builders have been making “for so long”, with shares in developer companies rising sharply on the morning of the announcement.
Patrick Begg, outdoors and natural resources director at the National Trust, said: “At the start of the summer, the Government promised the public it wouldn’t row back on environmental commitments.
“Today, it appears to be doing just that. Relaxing nutrient neutrality rules, that were designed by its own wildlife adviser, Natural England, to stop new houses contributing more pollution to our rivers is not the right economic or environmental decision.”
Data shared with the PA news agency by Watershed Investigations shows pollution from farming to be the main reason why 86% of the rivers in England have failed to meet good status, followed by the water industry.
Both these sectors are significant sources of nutrient pollution in UK waterways and conservationists worry that the housing changes will add extra pressure on to farmers.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said: “These rules are about preventing pollution, not housing. Piling on pollution from developers into rivers already suffocating from poo and agriculture pollution will only mean greater pressure is put on farmers to make bigger and faster cuts to nutrient pollution.”
Deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union Tom Bradshaw said: “There are still lots of questions to be answered about the changes to the nutrient neutrality rules, particularly around Government support for farmers.
“We are looking through the detail to understand how this will impact farmers across the country before commenting further.”