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The ‘blob’ has gone to war with housebuilding

Britain’s environmental quangos are perpetuating the housing crisis.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Brexit Politics Science & Tech UK

Over the past four years, state-sponsored body Natural England has worked hard to prevent new houses being built. Chaired by Tony Juniper CBE, a sometime adviser to King Charles and former top man at Friends of the Earth, Natural England has been using European Union-era rules to force housebuilders in England to jump through environmental hoops before they lay so much as a brick.

The UK government has now announced it is to scrap those rules in amendments to the 2022 Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. This has led to outcry from the ‘blob’ – that unseemly alliance of bureaucrats and quangos like Natural England.

One part of the blob, the government’s Office for Environmental Protection, run by two solicitors turned career regulators, has claimed that scrapping the EU rules would be ‘a regression’. Greenpeace and the Green Alliance have also condemned the changes. In one tweet, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was so apoplectic that it overprinted the legend ‘LIARS!’ over photographs of prime minister Rishi Sunak, housing secretary Michael Gove and environment secretary Therese Coffey.

The RSPB has since apologised. Yet we can be sure that the unelected green blob will continue to oppose our elected representatives’ attempts to abolish EU legislation and to get new homes built.

The government has been prompted to act after it emerged that EU-era laws on ‘nutrient neutrality’ were preventing thousands of houses from being built, even where planning permission had been granted. The EU laws are designed to limit the amount of ‘nutrients’ – phosphorus, nitrogen and other pollution – entering waterways and harming wildlife. And because new homes can increase the amount of nutrients making their way into rivers, via sewage systems, they can be said to break EU rules. Councils have therefore been effectively insisting that developers pay for expensive clean-up operations, thus stymying new development.

This is an absurd arrangement. It should not be housebuilders’ responsibility, supervised by cash-strapped local authorities, to clean up Britain’s rivers. That responsibility surely ought to fall to water companies.

But Natural England – not to mention the rest of the blob – does not care about any of this. It is putting its beloved EU environmental regulations ahead of people’s chance to get a roof over their heads. And in doing so, according to a new Home Builders Federation report, it is ‘overestimating significantly’ the likely increase in water pollution associated with new housing development. As the report has it, the impact of new homes on the environment is actually ‘minor’.

While the government’s moves against these EU rules are potentially good news for housebuilding, it’s worth sounding a note of caution. Rishi Sunak may have boasted about cutting ‘the red tape to unlock thousands of new homes’, but he has also pledged to step up ‘action to protect our environment’.

This should worry us. Too often this Tory government, like the blob itself, has put protecting the environment above building new homes and infrastructure. Its old housebuilding target of 300,000 new homes a year, set back in 2017, now lies in ruins (Gove now claims the target was never mandatory). This shows how flimsy the government’s commitment to housebuilding really is.

Besides, scrapping the neutrient-neutrality rules won’t be the end of the government’s green-hued restrictions on new housebuilding – at least if the blob has anything to do with it. Indeed, Natural England wants local authorities, housebuilders and architects engaged in ‘major developments’ – which it defines as sites with as few as 10 new houses on them – to follow a 40-page ‘user guide’ on how to apply its Urban Greening Factors (UGFs) in the cause of ‘green infrastructure’. A spreadsheet to help calculate UGFs has no fewer than 22 line items to exercise housebuilders, including detailed instructions on what combinations of flowers and shrubs must be planted. Then there is Natural England’s 135-page Green Infrastructure Planning and Design Guide for housebuilders to follow, too.

These people are zealots. They really believe that green targets should be prioritised ahead of the housing needs of the public. Theirs is a thoroughly reactionary worldview. And right now it stands in the way of finally getting to grips with our ever-deepening housing crisis.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Brexit Politics Science & Tech UK

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