(Bloomberg) -- The UK government pledged to rip up environmental rules protecting waterways that were inherited from the European Union, in a bid to boost housebuilding.
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Ministers will reform “nutrient-neutrality” regulations that prohibit builders developing in areas where polluted soil run-off has left the water in poor condition, the Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities said on Tuesday in a statement that confirms a Bloomberg article from last month.
“These laws which originate from Brussels put a block on new homes in certain areas,” the government said in the statement. After the planned changes, “it is expected that developers could begin construction on these homes in a matter of months.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives are trying to boost housebuilding rates that at present are failing to keep up with growing demand, providing the Labour opposition with an electoral advantage. Tuesday’s decision will unblock the construction of 100,000 new homes held up by the rules, the government said. But the decision to scrap them, portrayed by the government as a benefit of Brexit, will only add to concerns Sunak is retreating from green measures.
The Tory government has already pulled back from plans to make landlords insulate their properties and has opposed traffic easing measures since London’s expanded ultra-low emission zone became an electoral albatross for the main opposition Labour Party last month. Sewage run-offs into the seas and rivers by private water companies have also become a political lightning rod.
Wildlife Trusts Chief Executive Officer Craig Bennett said on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, that scrapping the EU rule will only make Britain’s waterways dirtier.
The 2018 European Court of Justice ruling makes it unlawful to release nutrients — such as nitrates and phosphates found in wastewater or sewage — into protected sites already in an “unfavorable” condition. Builders allege that Natural England, the public body mandated with protecting the environment, uses the rule to block developments.
The Home Builders Federation has argued that the EU rule can cost £25,000 ($31,520) per home in remediation and has prevented the construction of 120,000 homes. The government last month pledged to meet its manifesto commitment of building 1 million homes over this parliament.
The government will need to amend its Leveling Up bill to push through the changes. It argued that while nutrients entering British rivers “are a real problem,” the contribution made by new homes is “very small.”
(Updates with government announcement starting in first paragraph.)
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