Former housing secratary says lack of Environment Agency timeframe to sort nutrient neutrality requires urgent government action

Former housing secretary Simon Clarke has branded as “totally unacceptable” the interim Environment Agency boss’s admission that he didn’t know how long the nutrients crisis would carry on blocking housing development.

simon clarke

Simon Clarke branded John Surtin’s comments ‘totally unacceptable’

The Conservative Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP, who was briefly housing secretary under Liz Truss’ administration, said in response to John Curtin’s evidence to a House of Lords committee that the nutrient neutrality situation needed urgent action.

Clarke was commenting after Housing Today reported that the Environment Agency’s interim chief executive, John Curtin, had said housebuilders would have to wait for the implementation of the Plan for Water devised by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) before the nutrients crisis would be resolved – but that he didn’t know how long that would take.

The Home Builders Federation estimates that around 120,000 homes are held up in the planning process by the crisis, which stems from a European Court of Justice case which ruled that public authorities could not make decisions which would cause harm to EU-protected sites, such as those under the Habitats Directive.

>> See also Housebuilder CG Fry loses landmark nutrients case

  In total 27 affected river catchments within 74 different local authorities are affected, where planning permissions cannot be approved without schemes proving they are “nutrient neutral”

He said Defra officials were working “at pace” on an implementation plan but conceded similar actions in the past such as envisaged under the Plan for Water, around the Solent, had taken nearly a decade to come to fruition.

In response to the story, Clarke said on Twitter that: “This is totally unacceptable, and the situation needs urgent action from the Government.

“Nutrient neutrality is a legacy EU ruling doing untold harm, while the real culprits of water pollution lie elsewhere.”

John Curtin Environment Agency

John Curtin giving evidence to the House of Lords Built Environment Committee

As housing secretary, Clarke had promised to intervene to end the nutrients crisis, with speculation he was planning to amend the law to allow housebuilders to go ahead with plans in protected areas even where pollution was a problem.

Since returning to the backbenches, Clarke has been a consistent critic of recent government moves to backtrack on housebuilding plans, arguing the government should stick to proposals for deregulatory planning reforms.

Clarke was joined in his comments by Tory MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, the former chair of the new homes quality board, who said she had raised the issue with both Defra, and the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities (DLUHC).

Elphicke said on Twitter: “I have raised this with @DefraGovUK and @luhc Ministers. Everyone knows new homes are not responsible for historic nutrient problems.”

She went on to accuse the Environment Agency, which is one of two government agencies involved in the issues, alongside Natural England, of having “no plan & no accountability to communities who want & need homes”.