Michael Gove has announced today that the government will scrap EU-era pollution laws which are preventing homes being built. The move to liberalise the so-called ‘nutrient neutrality’ rules – which say that any new development can’t add additional nutrients into the environment – is designed to ease some of the bottlenecks around building and comes with the bonus of sweeping away EU-era regulation.
The current position for nutrient neutrality is a complex one. A combination of EU law, strict judicial interpretation and cautious domestic implementation has turned a well-intentioned piece of regulation into a millstone around builders’ necks. The original rules began with a drive to protect vulnerable species and habitats from run-off pollution, but now mean that you can only build near protected sites if you demonstrate nutrient neutrality across a project.
The zealous application of this principle means that development has become almost impossible in 62 local authorities. Even a minimal increase in pollution has been able to kibosh construction, while demonstrating compliance with the neutrality scheme has created significant costs and delays for developers. Housebuilders say that the rules have held up the building of more than 150,000 homes, while the government believe their change will mean 100,000 more homes can be completed before the decade is out.
Inevitably, Gove’s proposals have drawn ire from environmental groups. The Wildlife Trust and Greenpeace have attacked the plans, as have the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Yet the proposal is about more than simply scrapping regulation.
Under the new proposals, Natural England will be given more than a quarter of a billion to offset the impact of the scheme. It will also be paired with other rules toughening environmental requirements for farmers and water companies, as part of a broader ‘Plan for Water’ that aims to create cleaner rivers.