Plans to rip up pollution rules for housebuilders are a “regression” that will degrade England’s rivers, the government’s environment watchdog has said.
An amendment tabled by the government to the levelling up bill orders local authorities to ignore nutrient pollution from new developments in ecologically sensitive areas in England, including the Norfolk Broads and the Lake District. These nutrients, when untreated, cause algal blooms that choke the life from rivers.
Under the current system, which is derived from EU law, developers are not allowed to add more pollution to already-polluted protected areas, unless they buy “credits” that are used to improve nearby wetlands.
In a letter to the secretaries of state Thérèse Coffey and Michael Gove, the chair of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), Dame Glenys Stacey, said their proposed amendment, which they claim will unlock 100,000 new homes, would degrade the environment.
She wrote: “The proposed changes would demonstrably reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in existing environmental law. They are a regression. Yet the government has not adequately explained how, alongside such weakening of environmental law, new policy measures will ensure it still meets its objectives for water quality and protected site condition.”
Campaigners have previously called the OEP, which replaces the EU in enforcing environmental law, “toothless”. It has written to the environment secretary and her predecessors on numerous occasions to express concern that her department’s plans will contravene environmental law.
However, Coffey has been able to ignore it and proceed with her plans regardless.
Stacey has demanded the ministers face parliament to explain themselves and tell colleagues how they plan to prevent rivers being choked by pollution.
The solicitor and civil servant said the ministers were contravening their promises to parliament, referring to “Gove’s statement to parliament, under section 20 of the Environment Act 2021, that ‘the bill will not have the effect of reducing the level of environmental protection provided for by any existing environmental law’”. She said the “amendments now run counter to these commitments”.
She said: “It is essential to clarify the section 20 statement made to parliament in light of the government’s intention to weaken the habitats regulations. If necessary, ministers should make a statement equivalent to that required by section 20(4) and confirm that they are no longer able to say that the bill would not reduce the level of environmental protection provided for by any existing environmental law, but that the government nevertheless wishes parliament to proceed.”
She said England’s important wildlife areas were already at risk, writing: “Many of England’s most important protected wildlife sites are in a parlous state, with their condition well below where it needs to be. This is often due to nutrient pollution, and development can be a significant contributor to this.”
Officials at a briefing for journalists on Tuesday confirmed that if the amendment passed, there would be no legal obligation for developers in sensitive habitats to avoid nutrient pollution, and that the EU-derived legislation would be replaced by some extra funding for Natural England, the nature watchdog. They still said there would be no regression in environmental standards, despite the ditching of the legislation, because Natural England would be able to offset any pollution with the new funding.
The government has faced a backlash from nature groups since the announcement, with the RSPB calling Gove and Coffey “liars”. The charity accused them of breaking their promises that Brexit would improve the UK’s environment and that they would not weaken EU-derived environmental laws.
A government spokesperson said: “We’ve always been clear we will never compromise our high standards and we are fully committed to our ambitious and legally binding commitments on the environment. The reforms we’ve set out will see us tackle pollution at source in a way that these legacy laws never addressed through a significant package to restore waterways and leave our environment in a better state than we found it.”
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