In a crackdown on housing, Sunak's Tories take aim at EU-era water legislation

(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak is considering scrapping the UK’s EU membership environmental law, as his government faces pressure to build more homes while protecting the electorate from pollution.

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The prime minister’s team is looking at using a major amendment bill to reverse the 2018 decision, which effectively banned construction of houses in areas at risk of polluting rivers and waterways, people familiar with the matter said. The proposed move comes after lobby group the Federation of Home Builders blamed the “substance neutrality” rule for preventing the construction of 120,000 homes.

Britain’s housing shortage It is a contentious political issue ahead of an expected general election in 2024, with the Conservatives under fire for backtracking on their manifesto pledge to build 300,000 homes a year.

Many Tory MPs in affluent areas oppose building in their constituencies after seeing the previously safe seat of Chesham and Amersham flip to the Liberal Democrats in a 2021 special election. Members of Parliament resigned.

Still, their clamor for housing has left the Conservatives vulnerable to the Labor Party’s promise to boost supply. “Families across the country have had their aspirations destroyed by a failed Tory government,” Labor leader Keir Starmer told Sunac in a heated exchange as he tried to make the most of his weekly Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

But if Sunak watered down environmental laws to reclaim the housing narrative, #TorySewageParty and other hashtags trending on Twitter could draw attention to the Tories’ pollution record, which cost them votes in May’s local elections. It could break another manifesto promise not to lower the UK’s environmental standards below the EU’s after Brexit.

Read more: Sunak expresses frustration as Torrid Jun has UK cabinet on edge

“The subject of housebuilding highlights the main election challenge facing the Conservative Party: will they prioritize the needs of those who already own or are currently unable to get on the property ladder?” James Vitali, a research fellow at the Policy Exchange think tank, said:

Set against the now-fallen 300,000 annual target, the HBF will barely scratch the surface of the number of homes blocked by the scheme. The impact is also localised, particularly in areas near river basins such as Kent and Wales – although many areas of the West and North of England have seen the regulation implemented in recent years, the lobby group said.

In the Kent Stodmarsh catchment, a nature reserve near the River Stour, about 5 miles (8 km) from Canterbury, the HBF said 35,000 homes were delayed – more than a quarter of the total in the report. The environmental watchdog, Natural England, has sued for using the Nutrient Neutrality Directive to completely ban building in Stodmarsh and similar areas.

The Natural England position originated in In 2018, the European Court of Justice made it illegal to discharge nutrients – such as nitrates and phosphates in wastewater or wastewater – into protected areas. HBF disputes the figure, but insists that housebuilding must be aligned with legally binding targets for improving the environment.

Read more: Homebuyers stymied by a system that can’t build enough homes.

The government’s so-called standardization bill, which it plans to use to change substance neutralities, is currently before the House of Lords. The proposal would require separate legislation to completely repeal the law, a person familiar with the matter said when asked about the timing.

“The government is committed to delivering housing in areas affected by nutrient neutrality and is supporting local authorities and developers,” a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokeswoman said by email when asked about the plan. “We recognize the urgency of this issue and have now taken significant steps to open up housing and address the causes of nutrient pollution at the source.”

HBF typically represents developers who say the regulation is applied unfairly. Homebuilders who want to build on affected areas must build wetlands or other environmental protection projects to reduce pollution, adding up to £25,000 ($32,000) per house to get a permit. The government has developed a program that provides nutrient credits to developers, partnering with farmers to scale back projects.

But the group argued that the ingredient neutrality rule would compound barriers to homebuilding, such as supply constraints, a growing regulatory burden and a lack of funding in the planning system.

It can be especially difficult for local or small developers who cannot find sites for a nearby offset project. Andrew Watson, director of planning at brokers Savills Plc, said: “If you’re a developer with no connection to the environment, you’re probably going to build in regions where the rules don’t affect you.” “A lot of developers don’t have that right.”

Read more: London’s water crisis exposes Sunak’s ‘broken Britain’ threat

Tory MPs are influential in Sunak’s ruling party, who are calling for house building regulations to be eased. They argue that the 2019 manifesto’s commitment to uplift the deprived areas of the country is central. Home ownership has been a central tenet of the party’s doctrine since the days of Margaret Thatcher.

Theresa Villiers, who was environment secretary in the first months of Boris Johnson’s administration, said: “We have to find a way to lift this ban.”

John Fuller, the Conservative leader of South Norfolk County Council in eastern England, told MPs the nutrient regulation could cause a “socio-economic disaster” for affected families and businesses, and that responsibility for contaminated waterways should fall on the government and water companies. Phosphorus produced by building 40 to 50 houses can be carried in “two carrier bags”.

Read more: Britain comes to terms with its new water-poor reality.

“The general idea that stopping the construction of a few bungalows to clean up the rivers is not healthy,” he said in a letter to Parliament in April.

But Fuller’s reference to pollution spells danger for conservatives. Although developers and some green charities say agriculture is the biggest problem facing waterways, it still risks negative headlines if the government is believed to be cracking down on environmental protection.

In an emailed statement, Nature England said it was working with farmers to reduce pollution and said cleaning up rivers would require “cross-sectoral action”.

But Shawn Spiers of the Green Alliance think tank said HBF “has a long history of opposing forward-looking regulations on building codes, affordability quotas, energy efficiency or housing densities.” He said housebuilders should incorporate regulations into their business models, saying they should “continue to do what the best have done in the past and build the new homes the country needs”.

The government is being pressured to deal with the threat of water shortages, undeveloped pipes and filters that cause frequent dumping of raw waste in the country’s rivers. UK water companies apologized in May and announced a multibillion-pound plan to curb runoff on England’s rivers after months of public outcry that the move could hit households with higher bills.

Read more: Summer has just begun and the UK has a water crisis

Ministers also proposed regulations to ensure that new housing projects build water reservoirs and tanks to reuse wastewater, and promised to improve planning regulations to speed up the construction of new water reservoirs.

Vitali said in a policy exchange that nutrient release is harming biodiversity and prevention is a key issue. “The problem is that regulators are unable to balance this objective with other equally pressing issues, such as the acute shortage in housing,” he said.

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