Bartek Staniszewski is a researcher at Bright Blue.
“Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink,” wrote the Romantic English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. At the time of writing, this line made the location of the poem obvious enough – its hero was somewhere out at sea, where the water is too salty to drink. But, had Coleridge written The Rime of the Ancient Mariner now, its hero could be just about anywhere in England.
Our water is the worst in Europe. As such, Angela Rayner may seem vindicated in leading the Labour Party’s U-turn on relaxing ‘nutrient neutrality’ rules meant to protect English waters from pollution. In her piece for The Times, she writes that:
“We must build the homes people need while also protecting the environment we live in. The two are not mutually exclusive.”
She is right – but the way to achieve this is not by blocking new developments. The rules she defends have done little to protect the environment in the first place, and have come at a serious cost to building the homes people need.
‘Nutrient neutrality’ refers to an approach pioneered by Natural England – a quango meant to help conserve the natural environment – which requires that developments “cause no overall increase in nutrient pollution.” ‘Nutrient pollution,’ in turn, refers to unnaturally high levels of chemicals in the water – especially nitrates and phosphates – that lead to the destruction of water habitats and wildlife. When pioneered in 2017, the nutrient neutrality approach was explicitly not made mandatory. This only came in 2018, when a European Court ruling dictated that local authorities must ensure that no new developments in their areas go against Natural England’s advice on nutrient neutrality.
Natural England is right to be concerned about water pollution. 75 per cent of UK rivers pose a serious risk to human health; only 16 per cent of the UK’s rivers are in good ecological health – against a target of 75 per cent; nought per cent of UK freshwater meets good chemical standards. According to the environmental advocacy coalition, Wildlife and Countryside Link, the quality of our freshwater is the worst in Europe.
But new homes are hardly to blame. According to Housing Today, new housing contributes only five per cent to the problem of nutrient pollution. By way of comparison, the two biggest sources of water pollution in the UK, agriculture and the water industry, are responsible for 40 per cent and 35 per cent respectively. Even if that five per cent was removed altogether, our water pollution problems would remain. In fact, since the nutrient neutrality rules became mandatory, there has been little change in the quality of UK water. As aforementioned, 16 per cent of the UK’s rivers are in good ecological health – this is roughly the same proportion it has been constantly since 2016.
Indeed, the current Government is aware of this and has taken steps to tackle the real sources of water pollution. Some £400 million is being spent on infrastructure and equipment to reduce sewage run-off, over 4,000 farm inspections are being made each year to ensure nutrient pollution is being minimised and water companies are required to upgrade wastewater treatment works to the highest technical standards by 2030. The Government also doubled the size of the Nutrient Mitigation Fund to £280 million. There is still a very long way to go when it comes to cleaning up our waters, and more could be done, but the broad strategy taken by the current Government is the right one. Better wastewater treatment and agricultural practices are the way to solve the water pollution crisis – not stopping our homes from being built.
Relaxing nutrient neutrality rules would go a long way to helping us build more homes. According to the Home Builders Federation, 160,000 new homes are being held back by the rules. At recent house-building rates, that is an entire year’s worth of new homes. If this number was added to last year’s completions, the UK would have hit the Government’s target of 300,000 home completions a year for the first time since 1977 and make tens of thousands of families’ dreams of home ownership come true. To add to that, the Government calculates that relaxing the nutrient neutrality rules would deliver an extra £18 billion boost to the UK economy – an increase of almost one per cent.
It is no wonder, then, that Lisa Nandy, before she was removed from her position as the Shadow Minister for Housing, was set to support Michael Gove’s plan to relax the rules on nutrient neutrality. Her replacement’s U-turn seems to be an exercise in greenwashing – trying to portray the Labour Party as environmentally friendly, but with little actual benefit to the environment, and at the cost of worsening our housing crisis. Sadly, Labour are showing that they are not prepared to follow through with their bold promises to build the homes we need.