Natural England will not even begin tender process for national offsetting mechanism until the autumn
The environment department has admitted that a scheme announced yesterday designed to ease the “nutrient neutrality” crisis holding up plans for tens of thousands of homes won’t be up and running in the autumn, as originally suggested.
A spokesperson for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said Natural England only planned to begin tendering for sites for its Nutrient Mitigation Scheme in the autumn, despite the government yesterday saying the scheme will “open” in the autumn.
Housebuilders responded immediately by saying that Defra’s clarification meant that any solution to the planning problems posed by the nutrient neutrality issue remained “years away”, despite the high-profile government intervention yesterday.
The intervention follows deepening concern from the development industry over a planning logjam created by rules governing nutrient pollution in protected watercourses. Following fresh Natural England guidance issued in March, 74 local authorities have full or partial planning embargoes in place on residential development, except where developers’ schemes can demonstrate nutrient neutrality.
The government yesterday announced plans it said would drive down nutrient pollution while allowing new homes to be built, by requiring water companies to upgrade their water treatment works to the highest possible standards by 2030, and by requiring Natural England to create a Nutrient Mitigation Scheme which housebuilders can pay into to offset nutrient pollution from their developments.
Yesterday Defra and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said in a joint statement that the nutrient mitigation scheme “is due to open in the Autumn”, implying that developers would be able to use it from then to help secure planning permissions.
However, a spokesperson for Defra told Housing Today yesterday that “the scheme will develop at different rates in different catchments” and that “Natural England are intending on starting the tender process for projects in the autumn.”
The statement also implied that delivering an offset to nutrient pollution will still require the offsetting site to be in the same river catchment as the development which is paying for the mitigation, meaning it is not clear how much additional flexibility the Natural England scheme will offer. The spokesperson said: “Natural England will be working closely with Local Planning Authorities and other partners to identify opportunity and need in each catchment at pace.”
The Home Builders’ Federation (HBF) said it was concerned that by interrupting local authorities’ existing plans to develop mitigation for nutrient pollution, Natural England’s Nutrient Mitigation Scheme may even leave a solution to the problem for developers further off.
The HBF has previously estimated that around 100,000 homes in the planning pipeline are on hold due to the nutrient pollution hiatus.
Other housebuilders said there was significant anger in the industry at the limited package unveiled by the government, with one source describing the mood as “febrile”.
Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the HBF, said: “A functioning mitigation scheme is years away and rather than provide a fix, the proposal threatens to exacerbate the problem.
“Alongside an ask of water companies to upgrade their infrastructure by 2030, the proposed solutions in no way address the urgency of the issue. In the meantime consented sites and the construction of over 100k homes remains on hold, strangling housing supply and threatening the future of businesses.”
Housing Today’s A Fair Deal for Housing campaign, which seeks to increase housebuilding to 300,000 homes a year, has suggested government act strategically to deal with the issue of nutrient neutrality.
A Fair Deal for Housing
Housing Today believes the government should not back away from its manifesto pledge of building 300,000 new homes a year by the middle of the decade. We badly need more homes, and a lack of supply is a major factor in creating problems of affordability for both buyers and renters.
Over the next few months, Housing Today will be exploring potential solutions to help us ramp up housebuilding to 300,000. These are likely to include different ways of working, funding asks of government and policy ideas that could boost housebuilding.
We want to hear from you: what do you think can make a difference at a policy level?
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We believe that, with the right commitments from ministers and the industry, it is possible to build more homes and help the government to meet its objectives to “build beautiful”, improve quality and safety, boost home ownership and level up the UK.