Built environment committee chair says change is needed to put housing on equal footing with environmental goals

A committee of peers has recommended that housebuilding targets be given statutory weight in the planning system in order that development does not get downgraded by councils faced with conflicting environmental pressures.

The House of Lords built environment committee said local authorities’ housing targets – which the government has recently proposed weakening further – needed to be put on a “statutory footing equal to that of environmental protection” to ensure that “balanced decisions can be taken”.

The finding was one of 51 separate recommendations by the cross-party committee of peers following a seven-month inquiry into the impact of environmental regulations on development. The committee launched the inquiry in February in the wake of the deepening nutrient neutrality crisis, which has put development on hold in 74 local authority areas, and concerns over the implementation of other new rules such as biodiversity net gain, due to come into force in November.


Committee chair Lord Moylan said the government needed to display political leadership

The committee found that the government had allowed a “confusing and unclear policy landscape” to develop in which delivery of both development and environmental goals was being “hampered and sometimes completely blocked by lack of coordination in policy-making and haphazard and unbalanced implementation”.

The peers said the situation meant there was “no path to delivering the government’s ambitions” – such as housing delivery and increased biodiversity – by the intended deadlines and that an effective moratorium on housebuilding in areas affected by nutrient and water neutrality issues was “unsustainable and disproportionate”.

Conservative peer Lord Moylan, chair of the built environment committee, said the current approach to managing conflict between new homes and the needs of the environment was “failing to deliver for either side”.

“There is no way the government can deliver on its housebuilding targets unless it is brave and displays the political leadership necessary to deliver and implement a comprehensive strategy for both development and the environment.

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

>> See also: Nutrients: sometimes it is OK to ignore those who oppose development

“A good starting point would be to give housebuilding statutory weight, which would ensure it has equal status with environmental goals,” he said. “After that, coherent, cross-government plans should be developed to address major pollutants and to ensure that money is expended where it will have the most impact.

“This cannot happen overnight. We must be prepared with a long term plan.”

The committee said the nutrients crisis was holding back housing delivery by as much as 45,000 homes a year, while the government has said it may reduce housing delivery by up to 100,000 homes between now and 2030.

Despite the committee’s call to make meeting targets a statutory duty of councils, the government is currently planning to weaken the role of local housing targets in the planning system.

Under proposals to reform national planning policy published by Michael Gove before Christmas, the impact of local housing targets would be weakened, while development protections such as the green belt would be beefed up. The government has not yet confirmed it is pushing ahead with the proposals, despite originally saying it would make them policy in the spring of this year.

The built environment committee also called for a change in the rules in nutrient-affected areas such that development is allowed to proceed where a deliverable plan is in place to address pollutants. Currently planning applications can only be approved after mitigation to address pollution has been physically delivered.

It also called for the government to legally enforce the production of local plans by local authorities, and ensure that they had the resources to do so. It said the government should inspect all farms within the 27 catchment areas subject to nutrient neutrality advice by the end of 2024 to ensure they are operating within their permitted pollution levels. This would avoid unfairly penalising housebuilders when the problem was actually deriving from agriculture.

The report comes after the government was defeated in the House of Lords last week in an attempt to solve the nutrient neutrality issue by forcing councils to ignore evidence of the impact of housing on the environment when taking planning decisions. The government lost a key vote on an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill after Labour peers opposed the move, supported by Tory rebels.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said in a statement yesterday that the issue of nutrient neutrality, the delays it is causing to housing delivery, and the wider need to restore our waterways remained a government priority, and that it would make a “further announcement about next steps in due course”.