Feargal Sharkey says the Conservatives have just “trashed” any pretence of protecting nature with new rules set to scrap safeguards on where developers can build homes. Agreeing with the rivers campaigner and former Undertones frontman are, among others, the RSPB, which described the move on national radio as “insane”.
The bird charity’s first reaction was even more blunt: “Liars!” it proclaimed in a Tweet, naming ministers Michael Gove, Therese Coffey and prime minister Rishi Sunak.
The RSPB later withdrew the Tweet. But chief executive Becky Speight has admitted to being “frustrated and angry” with the government proposals. She told Nick Robinson on Radio 4’ s Today programme: “The government’s actions on rowing back on environmental protections is absolutely insane. This proposed amendment … will mean more pollution in our waters.” And this, she added, at a time when only 14 per cent of Britain’s inland waterways met acceptable environmental standards.
Gove claims ‘simply not true’
The claim by Levelling Up minister Gove that the changes could mean the building of 100,000 new homes also appears to be a smokescreen.
Speight said the claim was “simply not true”: around 70 per cent of these homes had been successfully “green lit” through the application of current nutrient neutral policies.
Sharkey, in an earlier interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, said: “To say it was causing a building ban is simply untrue… and it completely contradicts a statement the government were making only three months ago when they were bragging about having built a record number of homes.”
New homes clearly put a strain on the environment at a time when water companies are already pumping millions of gallons of sewage into our waterways. The current rules are not even that ambitious: they just aim to prevent our already polluted rivers in sensitive areas getting any worse. And as far as new developments are concerned, they appear generally to be working. A housing scheme in the Solent went ahead after, as Sussex Bylines reported, developers set aside land for wildlife as ‘mitigation’.
‘Grave concerns’ in Chichester
The shake-up has alarmed councillors in Chichester. The new proposals appear to be rushed through with no consultation, the council’s Lib Dem deputy leader Cllr Jonathan Brown, told Sussex Bylines.
He said: “We have grave concerns. We fear that the new rules will lead to increased pollution in Chichester’s rivers and harbour and will sabotage nascent projects that are expected to preserve, improve and expand habitats.” The area’s saltmarshes are currently a haven for wildlife and the seventh largest in the UK.
One of Brown’s jobs is to oversee the council’s environment policy, weighing up the desperate need for more homes against their impact on the environment. He says there is also very little detail published on how Gove’s Law — now an amendment to the government’s Levelling Up Bill — would be converted into specific rules.
The council has just successfully challenged one potentially damaging development – a proposal to build 200 homes between Nutbourne and Chidham. But the new rules could weaken its hand.
What makes sense? Weaker controls
Brown told us: “If a development can show that it is nutrient neutral, it can go ahead. This proposal only makes sense if its purpose is to allow development that cannot demonstrate nutrient neutrality.”
And his concerns are borne out by a close look at the wording of the legislation. “It would appear,” he says, “that regardless of any evidence, failure to demonstrate nutrient neutrality will not be a reason that can be used to refuse planning permission.”
Brown said most, if not all, major development proposals in Chichester District had been able to demonstrate nutrient neutrality. “So I don’t believe it can be argued that the current rules are substantially preventing development here.
“Their removal is therefore highly likely to lead to development no longer being nutrient neutral and therefore to an increase of pollution of Chichester Harbour.” The condition of the harbour has already been assessed as ‘unfavourable and declining’.
Doubt over future of ‘offsetting’ schemes
“The other major concern we have”, Brown continued, “is that the requirement to demonstrate nutrient neutrality has been supporting the creation of ‘offsetting’ schemes that create or restore habitat, for example the restoration of saltmarsh around the harbour. Without the requirement, the financial viability of such schemes must be called into question, which means improvements to biodiversity also risk being lost.”
As part of the shake-up, the government has pledged to fund a national mitigation scheme worth £280m. This, said Brown, seemed paltry compared to the potential scale of the need nationally.
Who benefits? Share prices in housebuilders shot up following the government announcement. It may be more than a coincidence that property developers and housebuilders are major donors to the Tory party but recently withdrew financial support on claims the government was blocking new house building.
Tory Brexiters are also happy. The rules are designed to replace EU laws and a 2018 European Court of Justice ruling. Not all Tories, though: Ben Goldsmith, chair of the Conservative Environment Network, told the i newspaper that the new policy was a “very un-conservative move” that would shift the burden from polluters to the taxpayer.
Labour ambivalent over backing
It is not yet clear what Labour’s position is, though it may back the reform, according to Housing Today. “With our rivers full of sewage, the Conservatives are failing on both housing and the environment,” said Levelling Up shadow minister Lisa Nandy. However, she added: “with housebuilding projected to fall to the lowest level since World War Two”, the party would “support effective measures that get Britain building.”
Is Labour underestimating the fallout from Tory moves to dodge responsibilities over the environment? Or is it correct that more homes are a bigger priority for voters?
It is clear that the Tories are already in election mode. And their plan is to appeal to those not swayed by environmental concerns. That worked — and seems to still be working— with some motorists in London over the Labour Mayor’s Ultra Low Emission Zones (Ulez). It won them the Uxbridge and Ruislip by-election — if only narrowly. And it seems now to be a key part of their strategy to stay in power.