UK to scrap rules protecting waterways to boost housebuilding


Ministers will on Tuesday announce plans to scrap UK environmental rules that developers say have prevented tens of thousands of homes from being built in recent years.

The property industry has complained that Natural England, a government agency, has blocked the building of large numbers of new developments by enforcing so-called “nutrient neutrality” regulations designed to protect the country’s waterways.

The rules were introduced under an EU directive on habitats and reinforced by a 2018 European Court of Justice ruling that said adding nutrients to soil that was already in poor condition would be unlawful.

Natural England’s guidance currently currently affects dozens of local councils in England, requiring them to limit river pollution — especially from phosphates, nitrates and sulphates — by restricting house building.

Planning experts have said that the guidance has exacerbated a chronic housing shortage in England with the annual supply of new homes at its lowest level since the 1920s.

Ministers will set out plans to disapply those regulations, claiming that the ability to do so is a “Brexit freedom”, according to several people familiar with the proposals.

They intend to make the changes by amending the levelling-up and regeneration bill, which is going through parliament. The government declined to comment.

The Home Builders Federation, which represents developers, claimed earlier this year that the “nutrient neutrality” rules cut housing supply by 41,000 homes a year.

The government has previously criticised “bureaucratic EU-derived domestic legislation and case law” for the fact that local authorities can only approve housing schemes if they are certain they will have no negative effect on legally protected nature sites.

The government is also expected to announce various mitigation measures, including extra funding for an existing “nutrient mitigation scheme”. It will also set out plans to work with farmers and water companies to reduce the level of polluting nutrients in rivers.

High levels of nutrients such as phosphates in rivers and other aquatic habitats can lead to algal blooms which can cause devastation to wildlife including fish, birds and invertebrates.

Developers have argued that the pollution of waterways caused by building works was dwarfed by the run-off from agriculture, which leads to large amounts of fertilisers and animal slurry leaching into water courses.

The housebuilding sector is facing a number of challenges, including the impact on demand from higher mortgages. It has also complained that the government has failed to enforce its target of building 300,000 homes annually while dropping plans for a radical overhaul of planning rules.