Possible amendments to Levelling Up Bill could allow building work to start on the basis of future improvements

Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove are working on plans for an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill designed to free up more than 100,000 homes held up in planning by the nutrient neutrality crisis.


The prime minister is working with Michael Gove on a new nutrient neutrality plan

The prime minister and housing secretary are understood to be in discussions over bringing forward regulations to allow homes to go ahead now even though promised actions to alleviate nutrient pollution – such as new water treatment facilities – will not actually be delivered until much later.

The news is being welcomed by developers as a potential breakthrough in the nutrient neutrality crisis which the Home Builders Federation (HBF) has estimated is currently blocking development of 120,000 homes, due to concerns over nutrient pollution from new homes on protected waterways.

The ramifications from an EU legal case dating from 2018, which makes clear that planning authorities can’t make decisions which will contribute to damage to EU-protected habitats, are now holding up planning decisions across 74 local authorities in England.

So far, the government has tried to tackle the problem by encouraging local authorities to work with developers to come up with mitigation measures to offset nutrient pollution, and told water companies to improve water treatment works – but both measures will take years to take effect, with the water treatment improvements not required until 2030.

Press reports said the prime minister was in talks with Michael Gove over the new plan, with the Telegraph and the Times both reporting at the weekend that the much-delayed Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill would be used as the vehicle to get the proposed reforms through.

An industry source told Housing Today that he understood the government was considering “bringing forward the date from which planning authorities can assume that mitigation measures are in place, for the purposes of making planning decisions.”

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He said: “The idea is they’ll basically be able to assume for planning purposes that new water treatment facilities are in place now, and start building today. They can’t get rid of the whole nutrient neutrality issue entirely though.”

The Telegraph reported at the weekend an unnamed MP, who had been briefed on the plans, saying: “It is their intention to effectively forward count the benefits of future water quality mitigation schemes so as to allow the new homes that are stalled because of nutrient neutrality to be unlocked on the basis of those future commitments.”

The HBF estimate that housebuilding completions are being impacted by around 41,000 homes a year by the crisis, which is particularly hitting SME builders that aren’t able to direct their efforts in other geographic locations.

Last week the interim chief executive of the Environment Agency, one of the government Agencies at the heart of regulating water quality, said he didn’t know how long it would be before the issue was sorted.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) directed enquiries on the topic to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which has been contacted for comment.