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  • by Karma Loveday

Ministers meet limited challenge in Parliament over plan to scrap nutrient neutrality

Urgent questions were raised in the Commons and Lords last week on government plans to use the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to scrap environmental protections on nutrient neutrality.

Green MP, Caroline Lucas, cited numerous government promises that Brexit would not lead to lower environmental standards and declared: “Yet here we have it: proposals to unpick the habitats directive and to disapply the nutrient neutrality rules that protect our precious rivers and sensitive ecosystems.” She added that: “The proposals go directly against the ‘polluter pays’ principle by forcing the taxpayer, rather than house builders, to foot the bill for mitigating increased water pollution from house building in environmentally sensitive areas.”

Lucas heaped questions on the minister responding, Rachel Maclean from the Levelling Up department. Lucas asked: “On transparency, will the government follow the OEP’s call for them to make a statement, as required by section 20(4) of the Environment Act 2021, admitting that they can no longer say that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill would not reduce environmental protections in law? Will the minister explain how the government will meet their objectives for water quality and protected site condition when they are at the same time weakening environmental law?

"What advice did ministers receive from Natural England before the amendments were tabled? Will she explain why there has there been a complete lack of consultation with environment groups? Will she also explain what consultation there was with house builders, whom members will have noticed are cock-a-hoop about the announcement and the subsequent boost to their share prices?

“Will the minister admit that it is a false choice to pit house building against environmental protection when there are successful projects under way to address nutrient pollution? Will the government provide evidence for their unsubstantiated claim that 100,000 homes are being delayed as a consequence of these rules? Will she recognise that money, which can easily be taken away at a later stage, is not the same as a legal requirement to stop pollution getting into our rivers?”

Lucas had little support for her all out challenge. Maclean defended the government’s plans, citing among other things that there would be no overall loss in environmental outcomes.

Environmental Audit Committee chair and Conservative MP, Philip Dunne, known for championing water quality, argued: “The minister’s proposals to amend the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill are not about damaging the status of our rivers; as I understand it, they are about dealing with a particular and specific interpretation of the EU habitats directive by the European Court of Justice in connection with a case in Holland prior to the time we left the EU. If that is the case—she has referred to the litigation and measures she has undertaken—does she agree that in special areas of conservation…these measures will help to unlock that while preserving the quality of the river in the catchment?”

Meanwhile shadow levelling up minister, Matthew Pennycook, agreed it was right to review the operation of nutrient neutrality rules with a view to addressing development delays, though he noted Labour had “serious concerns about the approach that the government have decided on. Not only does it involve disapplying the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, but it does not legally secure the additional funding pledges to deliver nutrient management programmes and does not provide for a legal mechanism to ensure that housing developers contribute towards mitigation.”

He put his own series of questions to the minister, for which Maclean thanked him and commented: “I take them to mean that he will support the measures when they come before the House. I am delighted to hear his support for our sensible, practical and pragmatic approach to unblock much needed housing across the country.”

In the Lords, Parliamentary levelling up undersecretary of state Baroness Scott of Bybrook fielded questions for the Government. Shadow environment and levelling up spokesperson Baroness Hayman of Ullock called for more time for peers to debate the amendment. Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the EU Env Sub Committee Lord Teverson argued the proposed change of legislation "really stands as a regress of environmental law”.


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