Pollution rules changes could ease housebuilding

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By Ione Wells & Sam Francis
BBC Politics

EU-era water pollution restrictions for housing developments are to be scrapped in a bid to build more homes, the government has announced.

Up to 100,000 new homes could be built by 2030 if rules around building homes near waterways in protected areas are loosened, the government said.

The government argue water pollution from new homes is “very small” and will be offset by £280m of investment.

But the Wildlife Trust have accused the government of “disgusting behaviour”.

The change will lead to “lots more poo in our rivers” and “not solve root causes of housing problem,” the CEO of the trust Craig Bennett said.

Sixty-two councils covering protected areas of England do not currently allow new developments unless they are “nutrient neutral”.

Builders must prove they will not cause polluting phosphates and nitrates to seep into nearby water for new houses to be deemed neutral.

Housing developments in particular pose a risk due the wastewater and sewage that can come from new homes – as well as the run-off from construction sites. Chemicals like these can reduce the quality of water, harm wildlife and cause excess algae growth.

The nutrient neutral rules – which date back to 2017 – were first enacted by the EU to ensure that a development or project does not harm local wetlands and waterways in protected areas.

The government have announced plans to scrap these rules through an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, currently going through the House of Lords.

By removing the restrictions, developers will deliver an extra £18bn in economic activity, the government said.

Alongside the move the government is announcing new environmental measures including doubling investment to £280m for the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme run by Natural England.

The new environmental measures will mostly target farming and water companies to restore protected waterways. An extra £200m in grants will be made available to farmers for improved slurry storage to reducing nutrient run off into rivers and wetland.

The government said it is also working on new laws expected to “drive significant investment” from water companies to upgrade wastewater treatment works.

‘Fix environmental strategy’

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said: “These new plans will cut nutrients and help support England’s precious habitats whilst unlocking the new homes that local communities need.

“We are going to tackle the key causes of nutrients at source.”

Levelling Up 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.”

But Mr Bennett told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the nutrient neutral rules are “very modest” as they “require the housebuilders not to cut pollution, but just to stop it getting worse”.

“Unfortunately, the housebuilders have been adept over many years at wriggling out of their environmental commitments and they’ve succeeded yet again,” Mr Bennett.

Developers have claimed nutrient neutrality rules prevented thousands of homes from being built.

Executive Chairman of the Home Builders Federation, Stewart Baseley, said housebuilding had been blocked by the nutrient neutrality rules “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”.

Water pollution became a highly politicised issue over the summer, with the Liberal Democrats accusing water firms in England and Wales of failing to reveal how much sewage was being pumped into rivers, lakes and coastlines.

Industry body Water UK called the claim “fabricated and completely false”, saying firms were fixing the problem.

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