New shadow housing secretary changes stance and says ‘reckless’ reforms needlessly pit homes against nature

Labour has said it will oppose Michael Gove’s “reckless” plans to tackle the nutrient neutrality crisis affecting the housebuilding industry, raising the prospects of a defeat for the government in the House of Lords today.

The new shadow housing secretary Angela Rayner said that she agreed reform was needed and that the “status quo was not an option”, but that the government’s plans went too far in weakening environmental protections.

Labour said it will table its own amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill designed to solve the problem, but will vote against the government’s plans if its own do not secure government backing. It is understood that the government will not be able to reintroduce its proposed amendments when the bill returns to the Commons if they are voted down by the Lords, given that they have been first introduced in the upper chamber.

Angela Rayner portrait

Rayner said the government’s proposal was ‘deeply problematic’

The housebuilding industry says the crisis is holding up construction of up to 150,000 homes in the planning pipeline, with planning decision effectively on hold in 74 local authorities.

The government at the end of August published proposals which would amend the law by telling councils to ignore evidence of environmental harm to protected sites when taking planning decisions. The government argued that its plans would improve environmental outcomes overall, because they were accompanied by an £140m increase to funding for nutrient pollution mitigation measures and £200m of grants to farmers to improve agricultural infrastructure, and free up construction of 100,000 homes.

Prior to the detail of the government’s amendment to the LURB being published, Labour’s former shadow housing secretary Lisa Nandy indicated that the Party would likely back the government’s reform package, saying it would “support effective measures that get Britain building”.

However, writing in the Times, Labour deputy PM Angela Rayner said that after analysing the amendment, the Party had now decided to oppose it. She said: “The Conservatives are being thoroughly disingenuous in suggesting that the only way we can build the homes we need in river catchment areas is by weakening environmental law”, adding that “The government’s proposed solution to this challenge is deeply problematic.”

She said: “Their approach would not only significantly weaken environmental law and increase river pollution but would fatally undermine the emerging market in nutrient pollution reduction that developers are already making use of.”

>>See also: How do we stop the nutrient neutrality problem holding up development?

She said that Labour was instead proposing that councils be allowed to permit schemes under so-called “Grampian conditions”, which would allow construction of developments to go-ahead prior to completion of pollution mitigation measures, so long as homes aren’t occupied until mitigation is in place.

She said: “Such an approach would allow time for Natural England’s nutrient mitigation scheme or other off-site mitigation schemes to bed in, while also providing certainty to the housebuilding industry that the wait would not be indefinite.”

The news comes as it emerged that the government’s environment advisor, Natural England, advised against the government’s solution to the nutrient neutrality crisis. The Guardian reported yesterday that the quango told a Scottish Labour peer that “upfront, fixed-rate contributions from developers could be faster and offer more certainty in enabling planning permissions to be granted and support emerging green finance markets” than the government’s solution.

Stewart Baseley, HBF re-sized

Stewart Baseley said the nutrient neutrality problem was deepening the housing crisis

In addition, Tory peers including Lord Wellington and Lord Blencathra, deputy chair of Natural England, spoke against the government’s plans in a debate in the Lords yesterday.

The news came as the Home Builders Federation (HBF) published research finding that housebuilders have contributed over £1bn to water companies to improve water infroastructure over the past three years. The HBF said the figure included £427m in developer payments for Infrastructure Charges and connection fees, and more than £600m in new assets added to water company balance sheets such as new pipes from which the firms will ultimately derive a long-term income stream

The HBF is calling on peers to back the government’s proposals in today’s vote on the amendments. Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of HBF said; “Despite the fact that new homes make a negligible contribution to the nutrients issue, around 150,000 homes across the country remain on hold.

“Whilst doing nothing to reduce the disgraceful pollution of our rivers the ban is deepening our housing crisis, reducing economic activity and costing jobs. After four years we need to see politicians delivering a solution to address this damaging ban so desperately needed homes can be built.”