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Architects condemn scrapping of water pollution rules


Source:  Shutterstock/ Paul D Smith

The government’s decision to scale back environmental rules on water pollution in order to ‘unblock 100,000 homes’ by 2030 has been called into question by the profession

Housing secretary Michael Gove said last week (29 August) that his department would table an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to remove rules on ‘nutrient neutrality’.

Housebuilders have blamed the rule, which derives from a 2017 EU habitats directive, for blocking at least 100,000 new homes since 2019 – all within catchment areas of protected waterways.

Under the legislation, more than 70 local authorities have had to ensure that new housing schemes would not worsen quality conditions in those rivers, estuaries and water bodies – with phosphates and nitrates among the biggest causes of concern.


Architects told the AJ that the latest change was a sign of government ‘flip flopping’ – in 2017 Gove pledged to ‘strengthen environmental protections’ in the UK following Brexit. He has since described the current nutrient neutrality rules as ‘defective’.

Archio director Kyle Buchanan said: ‘Delivering an adequate supply of new homes without destroying the environment or our built and natural heritage is a challenging task but one that that is absolutely achievable with clear thinking and strategic leadership from central and local government.

‘Once again, we have the worst of both worlds’

‘This flip-flopping and lack of leadership from government means we once again have the worst of both worlds, where housing starts are delayed and the natural world is thrown to the dogs to appease the lobbyists.’

Commentators noted that, following Gove’s announcement, housing developers including Persimmon, Barratt Developments and Taylor Wimpey rose up the FTSE 100.

Meanwhile, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLHUC) confirmed to the AJ that its 100,000 figure is based on an estimate of 16,500 homes being built each year between now and 2030. This equates to just 8 per cent of annual national housing delivery affected by nutrient neutrality rules.


Tate + Co director Jerry Tate questioned the removal of the rule. ‘This is a complex issue and finding the right balance between creating new homes and protecting our waterways is always going to be difficult,’ he told the AJ.

‘I do think it is challenging to designate large areas “wholesale” as nutrient neutrality zones and limit a community’s ability to grow.

‘However the devil, as always, is in the detail. The nutrient neutrality problem is not going away so I think the idea of “removing” the designation is probably not the right approach, it is much better to create a wider range of solutions to fix it.’

Echoing those calls, ZCD Architects co-director Dinah Bornat said: ‘The government's Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is an important piece of legislation that should not further erode our environment or indeed the quality of housing being built.

‘I've been keeping an eye on the progress of the bill, and support the Healthy Homes amendment which considers the wider neighbourhood and sets out planning legislation that would provide the type of housing we need. Sadly this latest government announcement doesn't sound at all healthy for anyone.’

But HTA Design senior chartered landscape architect Oliver Chapman said he thought housebuilding might not be to blame for wider water quality issues.

‘Development is not necessarily the primary problem here,’ he said. ‘This lies with the well-publicised mismanagement of our national water resources and agricultural runoff, including significant quantities of fertiliser and animal waste seeping into our waterways.

‘What we need is a co-ordinated response by government at all levels to provide fit-for-purpose national infrastructure that supports sustainable and healthy growth. Dealing with the pollution in rivers will deliver more positive immediate and local benefits for biodiversity than other more widely acknowledged sustainability targets.’

The Guardian reported last week (28 August) that the effort to scrap 'nutrient neutrality' rules will come alongside £400 million in grants to farmers and water companies to reduce leaks into rivers, estuaries and wetlands.

Another £300 million will be earmarked for mitigation efforts where housing schemes increase levels of water pollution in an apparent effort to alleviate fears over water quality.

Details included in the amendment, however, ask local authorities to assume that new development will not degrade water quality even if scientific findings show otherwise.

Other changes to housebuilding and planning in the bill include updates to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), a focus on ‘building beautiful’, and the removal of five-year housing targets.

Gove said in a statement: ‘We are committed to building the homes this country needs and to enhancing our environment. The way EU rules have been applied has held us back. These changes will provide a multi-billion pound boost for the UK economy and see us build more than 100,000 new homes.

‘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 while still building the much-needed homes this country needs.

‘We will work closely with environmental agencies and councils as we deliver these changes.’

In January 2022, the UK's Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC) found that only 14 per cent of rivers were in ‘good’ ecological condition. The rest are subject to chemical, agricultural and road pollution, among other sources.


Peter Drummond, chair of practice at RIAS

It has been a mantra of Westminster, notably in relation to fire safety issues, that 'polluter pays'. None of us would, I think, dispute that premise. The natural consequence is that developers, contractors, and others who deliver compliant schemes are incentivised for doing so and therefore flourish. In contrast those who are perhaps less scrupulous rightly labour under additional costs by way of enforcement action, delays, and so on.

Against that backdrop, it is not unreasonable to expect housebuilders ensure that their developments address environmental issues such as flooding or, in this case, pollution. It would be inappropriate for developers to maximise their profits whilst leaving the taxpayer to meet, even in part, such burdens. Developers already benefit from measures such as zero-rating for new-build, in stark contrast to those who seek to retrofit existing properties.

It is, therefore, difficult to see why, beyond political expedience, they should be handed what appears to be yet another gift on a plate.

Ritchie Clapson, co-founder of propertyCEO

The majority of local planning authorities that were affected by the nutrient issue had no real idea or plan on how to deal with it and so we were left in limbo, with a blanket freeze on approval of any new planning applications. While I accept the environmental issues we have with our rivers, housing development contributes only part of the problem and it’s good to see that the government is also committing to invest in other solutions.

The government has regularly promoted the redevelopment of brownfield land where we have the opportunity to develop hundreds of thousands of homes from existing unused buildings. The sewage discharge infrastructure for these empty properties already exists and, from an environmental perspective, we should certainly prioritise their conversion. For property developers, a simple tax payment on any new housing with the monies collected directed to the investment in water treatment plants seems to be a far simpler and workable approach – a simple two-tier tax system with one level for conversion of brownfield land and another for new-build could solve the problem.

Ultimately, we need to protect our environment and build new homes for people to live in. These goals cannot be mutually exclusive and it’s down to government to plot a workable path that allows us to do both. Hopefully, these new measures will achieve this.

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