Plans to scrap pollution rules for housebuilders in England have been abandoned by the government, the Guardian understands.
Politicians opposing the bill have suggested the double byelection loss, where the sewage scandal was said to have come up on the doorstep, may have caused prime minister Rishi Sunak to reconsider the controversial legislation.
The levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, had been planning to rip up EU-derived laws on nutrient neutrality that force developers to pay to offset pollution from new developments. It was believed he had Sunak’s support, and the government claimed removing these rules for housebuilders could unlock more than 100,000 homes.
The nutrient neutrality scheme, aimed at saving England’s rivers from being overloaded with nitrates and phosphates, which cause algal blooms and choke oxygen from rivers, allows developers to pay for “credits” to improve local wetland areas. This allows them to offset pollution caused by new homes that would overwhelm sewage systems in sensitive areas. The proposed new law would have allowed planning officials to ignore the extra pollution caused by sewage from new homes in sensitive areas and runoff from construction sites, with the taxpayer paying for the offsets instead.
Previously the government had planned to put the bill, aimed at boosting housebuilding by taking away costs from developers, into the King’s speech. This is no longer planned to be the case.
Gove told an event at the Conservative party conference earlier this month that he planned to bring a bill to scrap nutrient neutrality to the House of Commons “as soon as possible provided the prime minister lets me”.
Sunak appears to have performed a U-turn, as government sources said ministers would now find alternatives to primary legislation to unblock homes currently in breach of nutrient neutrality rules.
Ministers previously tried to dismantle the rules via an amendment to the levelling up bill. Because it was a last-minute addition, it did not go to the Commons and instead was voted on by the Lords.
The peers delivered an astonishing defeat to the government when they voted against the amendment, which would have forced local authorities to turn a blind eye to pollution from new developments.
It was brought over the line when Labour’s shadow environment and levelling up secretaries, Steve Reed and Angela Rayner, declared they would support a vote against the amendment.
Reed said of the government’s plans to drop the legislation from the king’s speech: “If correct, this is a huge win for Labour and environmental campaign groups over this relentlessly anti-nature Tory government. They could build the homes British people need without trashing nature. And if they won’t, the next Labour government will.”
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Of the decision to leave the bill out of the king’s speech, Jenny Jones, the green peer who led the defeat in the House of Lords, said: “It’s only a guess, but could losing two byelections on the same day have made the government pause on their anti-environmental mission? Did their canvassers pick up on the fact that voters are furious about sewage being discharged into precious watercourses? Colour me very happy.”
Nature and green groups have celebrated the government U-turn. Joan Edwards, director of policy at the Wildlife Trusts, said: “We are relieved the UK government is abandoning attempts to get rid of nutrient neutrality rules that exist to stop water pollution becoming even worse. Housebuilding and nature restoration must not be pitted against each other – both are necessary and possible.”
Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition of environmental organisations added: “Ministers have recently sought to use the environment as a culture war issue rather than passing legislation to turn around nature’s decline or tackle climate change. It is clear that the public want more protections for the environment. We hope this marks a new approach.”
A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “As we said following the vote in September, these reforms would have unlocked 100,000 much needed homes while protecting and improving the environment. We are considering next steps so we can explore how we can unlock the homes we need.”