In Opinion, Residential

With Michael Gove returning as housing secretary, Mark Lane, Director at DPP has spoken to Housebuilder Magazine about the government’s need to reconsider its position on the issues surrounding nutrient neutrality.

Like most government departments, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has experienced considerable ministerial churn, with Robert Jenrick preceding Gove as housing secretary who was replaced by Greg Clark, then Simon Clarke before the positioned was returned to Gove.

If the government is committed to levelling up, there is no greater need for stability and the delivery of a long-term strategy than this department.  Of course, a key element of levelling up is providing suitable, affordable housing, which remains below government targets.  Housebuilding serves as a positive way to boost the economy. However, issues such as nutrient neutrality are causing roadblocks and delaying the delivery of much-needed new homes in key areas around the UK.

A lot of discussion has taken place since Natural England began advising local authorities about the issues facing our watercourses. The issue of nutrient neutrality, whilst now a fierce topic of debate amongst planners, should come as no surprise. For years nutrient pollution has been a big environmental issue, with increasing levels speeding up growth of certain plants, impacting wildlife through a process called “eutrophication”. In the worst affected areas, protected sites are being damaged and some are falling into the category of being in “unfavourable condition”.

These internationally important sites are protected under the Habitats Regulations 2017, with legislation updated to transfer functions from the European Commission to the appropriate authorities in England and Wales following Brexit. However, Natural England have since advised a total of 74 councils that developments should not go ahead unless nutrient neutrality can be achieved. That’s nearly a quarter of all local authorities in England, a figure which we at DPP expect will rise.

The complexities associated with nutrient neutrality are well-documented, and the challenges facing the industry are widely publicised. It is still too early to tell what the long-lasting effects on the housebuilding industry will be. However, think tanks are predicting shortfalls in supply with many authorities expected to be unable to demonstrate more than a five-year supply of housing, placing them at risk of speculative developments which go against the plan led system the government is trying to pursue.

A change in leadership brings with it an opportunity to revisit the Government’s approach to its handling of the issue and housebuilding more generally. Liz Truss, even in her historically short period as prime minister, was vocal in her plans to deregulate in an attempt to boost economic growth and we would hope that her successor, Rishi Sunak, and Michael Gove continue that commitment.

Part of those plans included a pledge to end “Soviet-style” and “top-down” housing targets, and to curtail the powers of the Planning Inspectorate, arguing it was “too easy” for inspectors to overrule council’s decisions. Her other more notable pledge during her leadership campaign was a promise to ditch the requirement to ensure nutrient neutrality in those affected areas, which the Home Builders Federation says is stalling progress on around 100,000 homes.

At the time some saw this as a “holding position”, one which will enable the government to prepare a longer-term fix which brings the farming and water industries in line with others.

Efforts to impose greater regulation on the water industry in particular would suggest this is the case, with the housebuilding sector taking the immediate hit for crimes it did not necessarily commit.

The government now finds itself at an important crossroads. And with the recent Westminster merry-go-round hopefully coming to an end, it is time for this issue to be addressed and resolved.

Building more homes is fundamental to the one consistent message that the last three prime ministers have shared – that the UK needs to rebuild its economy. However, the strangle on development in affected areas will undoubtedly hinder any progress and the effects are likely to be felt for years to come.

Michael Gove and the government must also be conscious that the challenges facing the development industry extend beyond the issue of nutrient neutrality. Local planning authorities are stretched far beyond capacity, experiencing unprecedented levels of demand from developers and home owners alike.

The system is growing increasingly complex, but planning is integral to strategic economic policy, and it is only right that the government prioritises this going forward.

This should not, however, be at the expense of all environmental policy and as always, a balanced judgement is required. The level of influence our new King will have on decisions affecting the environment remains to be seen, though we suspect a shift change in environmental policy going forward, which may clash with any move to reversing the requirement to achieve nutrient neutrality. However, this issue is putting the brake on much needed development in certain areas.

DPP has previously reflected on the government’s underfunding of the planning system, and we feel the time is right to fully revaluate the critical role that planning has in delivering the modern Britain the government aspires to.

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