"It was obvious from Day One that Natural England’s stance would lead to an effective ban on new homes, so why has it taken them four years to devise a plan to deal with it?"
- Ritchie Clapson - propertyCEO
There’s been a lot of stuff in the news recently about something called ‘nutrient neutrality’, and it’s been causing a bit of a stir in political, environmental, and property development circles.
For a subject that sounds as dull as ditch water, it’s ironic that nutrient neutrality concerns the quality of the water we find in our ditches (and other waterways) across the country. And in case you thought that having nutrients in any diet must surely be a good thing, you may want to think again.
What’s all the fuss about?
Excess nutrients in our waterways cause algae to bloom, suffocating other pondlife and disturbing the natural balance of water-based things. How do these pesky excess nutrients materialise?
The government estimates that less than 1% come from new housebuilding, with a far larger proportion coming from agricultural farmland.
The matter is also not helped by our water companies’ inadequate wastewater treatment facilities that fail to prevent a significant proportion of these nutrients from reaching our waterways. Ironically, new housebuilding connects to these underperforming water treatment systems, whereas agricultural farmland does not. Yet it turned out to be housebuilding rather than agriculture or the water companies that took the fall.
Here’s how it came about: Natural England wanted to ensure that new housing schemes did not add to the nutrient problem. They identified 74 local authorities who had vulnerable land, environmentally speaking, and required that any new development must not add to the nutrient problem.
But here’s the rub: new houses can’t help but have some local impact on nutrient levels, even though the people who will live there are already generating sewage, etc., wherever they currently live.
So, it made it impossible for developers to prove that their new homes weren’t adding to the nutrient problem locally. Consequently, if the local authorities decided to grant planning permission, it would expose them to legal action by Natural England, who could (quite rightly) argue that nutrient levels would increase.
This ended predictably with an impasse and placed the affected local authorities in a position where they couldn’t grant any planning permission for new homes without being legally exposed. So they refused to grant permission for any new homes, and the residential property development industry in 74 council areas up and down the country went into stasis.
Why is this a problem?
The main challenge is that we have a national housing crisis. Too few new homes are being built yearly, and the issue is worsening. The government reckons we need to build around 300,000 new homes annually, which, to put it into context, is just over the number of homes already in Oxfordshire.
Unfortunately, we’re falling way short, and having 74 local authorities unable to build new homes isn’t helping. What has exacerbated the problem is that it has been left to fester. We’re now at a point where around 100,000 new homes are stuck in the planning system due to this nutrient neutrality deadlock.
Recently, help came to pass in the unlikely but welcome form of government intervention. Michael Gove stated that he planned to tackle the nutrient issue head-on by relaxing the development constraints and offsetting the impact through direct investment in improving water treatment in affected areas.
In addition, new homes in those areas would be subject to a levy that will be put towards the cost of having the water companies place much-needed investment into their treatment infrastructure and processes to clean up their act. This prompted a backlash from environmental groups, who saw it as a capitulation. After all, if building new homes will result in more nutrients entering our waterways, then that’s a bad thing.
But we need new homes, AND we need clean waterways. And when it comes to nutrients, they are mutually exclusive. So, which one do we, as a country, choose?
Let’s look at a similar challenge.
Cars and aeroplanes are in a different league from new homes when it comes to damaging the environment. And they, too, are mutually exclusive – you can’t travel by either without damaging the environment. So which one should we choose?
Should we maintain the convenience of travelling by car and plane? Or should we ban the things and let the environment breathe a massive sigh of relief?
Well, it won’t come as a complete shock to you to discover that we do neither. Instead, we find ways of reducing the impact of cars and planes on the environment, AND we take other independent measures to offset the negative impact that cars and aircraft inevitably have.
So, at face value, the government’s plan of allowing new homes to be built AND investing in the water treatment facilities that these new homes (and existing ones) plumb into sounds like a compromise that would work similarly to our cars and planes compromise. But then the government hit a snag.
If you support a football team, plenty of other football fans are happy to take an opposing view to yours. But if you champion the environment, you’ll find you’re virtually uncriticisable. After all, who would dare suggest that speaking up for our precious planet is wrong?
So, it was that Labour saw an excellent opportunity to upset the government’s applecart. By playing the green card on nutrient neutrality, they could be seen to be championing the environment AND defeating the Tories simultaneously.
What was not to like? So, they successfully set about ensuring that the government got defeated in the House of Lords by suggesting that their plan was anti-environment.
Rishi and co. were furious, but they could do nothing about it. The compromise was scuppered, and those 100,000 new homes that would have created jobs, wealth, and an opportunity for many more people to get on the housing ladder wouldn’t now be built.
If you’re a staunch Labour supporter, beating the Tories at anything will be good news. But if you’re struggling to get on the housing ladder, work in the construction sector, live in one of the 74 affected council areas, or want to see more investment in protecting the environment, you should be furious.
When faced with a sensible compromise to a complex problem, instead of seeing an opportunity to either support it or offer an alternative solution, Labour looked to score political points. Whatever your politics, it’s the wrong mindset; we need our politicians to devise solutions, not impede them. And while the government came up with a proposed solution, they are far from blameless here.
It was obvious from Day One that Natural England’s stance would lead to an effective ban on new homes, so why has it taken them four years to devise a plan to deal with it?
Such a glacial approach to fixing problems will not solve our housing crisis any time soon. Or any of the other crises we currently have, for that matter.
So, disappointing news, depending on your view.
Better news for all
Another less well-reported development has seen the government take further action, which should be very welcome in greener quarters. According to the countryside charity CPRE,
there are currently 1.2m new homes that could be built on unwanted brownfield sites. These sites are redundant commercial, light industrial, and retail premises that are no longer needed. No matter where you live in the country, you will doubtless be aware of dozens of these buildings yourself.
Whether it’s disused factories or empty shops on the high street, there are hundreds of thousands of these buildings up and down the country. And the government is all too aware of it.
In 2020, they radically overhauled the permitted development rights (PDRs) that apply to commercial buildings, and today, a huge number of these sites can be converted into residential use without the need for full planning permission. And they have recently done so again, further extending the scope and removing some of the constraints so that it’s easier than ever before, to convert these buildings.
For obvious reasons, this is excellent news for people looking to try their hand at property development: changing an existing building without the need for planning permission is relatively low-risk in development terms, and with so many buildings to aim at, there’s now a considerable number of people looking to develop their first project in their spare time.
So, small-scale property developers are justifiably made up, but why would the green brigade also be happy with the conversion of commercial buildings?
Well, it means we are effectively recycling property. After all, why do we need to build on our precious greenbelt when we can build 1.2 million new homes using buildings we already have? They already exist, are in the right place, and are connected to our utility infrastructure, such as water, waste, and power.
They don’t require new roads to be built, and no one needs to dig holes in the ground. And because these buildings had previous inhabitants, the net impact from a nutrient perspective is negligible. Better still, from a government perspective, no one usually objects. Try to change the planning system, and backbenchers nationwide will start worrying about a NIMBY backlash.
The sad truth of the matter is that everyone wants the housing crisis solved, but they don’t want any new houses built anywhere near them. That’s why we’ve had ten housing ministers in as many years and are no closer to solving the problem, despite the memorable snapshot of Boris Johnson perched on a digger in his heyday shouting build, build, build!
Converting existing buildings is just about the only palatable housebuilding strategy from a political perspective, so it’s no wonder the government is doing everything it can to promote it.