Peers voted down amendement to change neutrality rules last month

Michael Gove has confirmed that the government plans to drive through nutrients reform using a standalone bill. 

Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, the housing secretary said that changing nutrient neutrality rules would allow thousands more homes to be built. 

In a sit-down interview with the Centre for Policy Studies on the first day of the conference, Gove told a packed room that he wanted the rules, which housebuilders say are holding up 150,000 homes,  to be abandoned “at the first available opportunity”. 


The Conservative Party’s annual conference is underway in Manchester

Gove’s department subordinate Rachel Maclean re-iterated this plan in a Policy Exchange fringe event on the UK’s housing crisis.  

The housing minister listed the “nutrient issue” as an element of planning policy that was holding back development and that would not be dealt with by the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which is still going through parliament.  

The nutrient neutrality crisis emerged following a 2018 EU court ruling which meant councils could not permit developments that would make nutrient pollution of protected waterways worse. 

This caused a planning hiatus across 74 local authorities where protected habitats were in poor condition and, according to the Home Builders Federation, 150,000 homes are currently being held up in the planning process as a result of the issue. 

The government’s plans to water down nutrient neutrality rules were voted down by peers last month after the Labour Party decided to oppose the proposed amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. 

“We introduced very sensible measures in the House of Lords and Labour voted against it,” she said. 

“We’re going to bring that back and make sure we can allow those houses [to be built]. A lot of them, by the way, are affordable housing, they are social housing, they are small sites in town centres and communities across the country that are being held up.” 

Parliamentary procedure means the government cannot re-introduce the amendement when the bill returns to the Commons, but Gove’s comments on Sunday confirmed reports that the government is planning to force the issue through separate legislation. 

If this happens, the Tories could use their 60-seat majority to drive the legislation through parliament, with the Lords unable to reject wholesale pieces of legislation passed by the lower chamber. 

>>See also: Housebuilders are right to expect better from politicians after nutrients reform failure

>>See also: Nutrient pollution: a developing problem with no solution in sight

Elsewhere in the conference, environment secretary Therese Coffey struck a less bombastic tone on the nutrient issue.  

Asked whether she was looking forward to taking a nutrient neutrality bill to parliament, the secretary of state, who was appearing on the panel alongside the chair of the National Trust, said: “It’s Michael [Gove]’s bill not mine. If it happens.” 

The 15,000-home housing association Beyond Housing recently cited nutrient neutrality rules as among the reasons it missed its annual development target and posted a lower operating surplus. 

It said: “We had delays to our new homes programme due to nutrient neutrality in Teesside, planning in Scarborough through the unitary reorganisation, alongside the wider economic environment challenges. These have all impacted our metrics e.g. supply of new homes.” 

A Fair Deal for Housing, a campaign run by Building’s sister publication Housing Today, calls on the government to act strategically to tackle the nutrients issue.