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Construction industry calls for relaxation of environmental protection

29 Nov 21 Construction of an estimated 40,000 homes across England is being held up by a requirement for developers to ensure ‘nutrient neutrality’.

The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) has written to housing secretary Michael Gove seeking a relaxation on requirements of developers to protect wetlands.

House-building in Somerset, the Solent and Kent is being stalled by a requirement for builders to avoid any adverse impact on wetland habitats. Local planning authorities have been imposing stopping orders on the determination of new planning applications, reserved matters and discharging conditions.

“It is imperative to do everything possible to lift the current threat to housing and commercial development delivery as quickly as possible by finding both short and longer-term solutions,” CLC co-chair Andy Mitchell tells Michael Gove in his letter.

He explains: “As a rule of thumb, building a house in the areas afflicted requires the equivalent area of land to be set aside as mitigation. In Somerset, for example, it is calculated that to clear the backlog of 11,000 homes delayed by this issue, it would require 630 hectares of land to be turned over to provide wetlands (providing mitigation through wetlands is the least land-hungry option). This would need to be cleared and constructed, within the necessary sub catchments, merely to clear the existing backlog. In addition to this, the four Somerset local planning authorities need to deliver 2,720 homes a year. This would require about another 150 hectares of land to be turned over to wetland, each year, for the foreseeable future.”

He says that while the big volume house-builders can sometimes cope with the constraints, smaller developers are being particularly badly affected.

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“The delays associated with the nutrients issue risk driving many SMEs out of business, so a more rapid and effective way needs to be found to remove this threat,” Andy Mitchell writes. “Ideally the guidance issued by Natural England should be adjusted to weigh-up the costs associated with the small release of nutrients in the short term against the wider public-interest benefits of housebuilding and other development.

“But a longer-term solution also needs to be found. This should recognise the negligible amounts of nutrient pollution arising from new housing and commercial projects and find effective means of reducing the significant nutrient pollution arising from other sources, including farming. At the same time, the government, working with OfWat, should encourage a rapid programme of upgrading of waste-water treatment works by the water utilities so that these are able to filter-out nutrients from new developments and other sources before they enter watercourses. Targeted investment to improve the water treatment infrastructure would be a sensible means to unlock nature recovery and new development.”

He concludes: “With the nutrients problem becoming more difficult and extensive the CLC would urge the government to take early and effective action to prevent the damage to housing and commercial development delivery becoming even more serious. The CLC would welcome your involvement in brokering short and longer-term solutions and in facilitating better collaborative working with other government departments and agencies to this end.”

As explained by estate agent Savills last month*, the issue of nitrates and phosphates in water systems became an immediate challenge for developers following an EU Court of Justice judgement in 2018 concerning the interpretation of the Habitats Directive. At high concentrations, these nutrients cause excess algae to grow, depleting oxygen in the water and damaging other aquatic life. Following the judgement, in Special Protection Areas, any new development must comply with the EU legislation that sets the recommended limits for nutrient levels in the water. This has effectively created a moratorium on all new housing development in affected locations that would discharge into a protected water system, whether directly, or indirectly via one of its river catchments.

* www.savills.co.uk/research_articles/229130/319723-0

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