On 29 August, the Tory government tabled an amendment in the House of Lords that would strip back EU-era water pollution restrictions. Housing secretary Michael Gove proposed the change, stressing its necessity in order to boost housebuilding.
However, given that private water companies are already heavily polluting our waterways, such proposals show a willful disregard for our embattled environment. Naturally, the move angered green campaigners.
Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace UK, asked:
Who would look at our sickly, sewage-infested rivers and conclude that what they need is weaker pollution rules? No one, and that should include our government.
What’s more, the taxpayer is – of course – set to foot the bill for the environmental damage.
The ‘nutrient neutrality’ rules bar new developments from adding harmful nutrients to nearby waters. Under these laws, developers have to prove that their housing wouldn’t release nitrates or phosphates – often from sewage – into our rivers. The areas protected include Somerset, Norfolk, Teesside, Kent, Wiltshire, and the Solent.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, stated that:
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The government has made repeated pledges that they won’t weaken environmental standards and committed just eight months ago to halve nutrient pollution by the end of the decade…
This is another broken promise and makes clear that the prime minister would rather look after the interests of developers than the environment – money talks.
A government spokesperson said:
Over 100,000 homes held up due to defective EU laws will be unblocked between now and 2030, delivering an estimated £18 billion boost to the economy.
They added that nutrients entering rivers “are a real problem”, but the contribution made by new homes is “very small”.
Private profit, public problem
However, that “very small” contribution is belied by the cost to fix it. The UK will have to double investment in its nutrient mitigation scheme to £280 million “to offset the very small amount of additional nutrient discharge” from the new homes.
Government ministers have already conceded that this cost would fall at the public’s feet. As such, the Tories are essentially removing regulations which protect the environment, enriching private companies and leaving the taxpayer to pick up the pieces.
If all of this sounds a little familiar, it should. Back in April, environment secretary Thérèse Coffey likewise announced that public money would also be used to fix the sewage-dumping mess caused by privatised water companies.
The proposed changes to housing regulations come at a time of of increasing demand for houses but declining supply. The Home Builders Federation claimed earlier this year that housebuilding in the UK could fall to its lowest level since World War II. However, simply building new houses is far from a holistic solution.
Housing in crisis
Campaign group Action on Empty Homes reported that, earlier this year, over a million UK homes were standing empty. This figure included the 250,000 buildings that the government has declared empty for over 6 months.
However, it also factored in 200,000 homes that the government didn’t count due to council tax exemptions. Add in 257,000 ‘furnished empty’ second homes, and 70,000 ‘second homes paying business rates as short-term lets, and the empties quickly pile up.
The choice to enrich house-building firms – and the landlords who buy from them – also has an environmental cost in itself. As the Big Issue reported:
building a new home has a carbon footprint of 80 tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to building five brand-new cars. But refurbishing an old house carried much less of a carbon footprint, equating to just eight tonnes in comparison.
Building new homes is already a dicey prospect for the environment, even without removing pollution safeguards. The new proposals will create just 100,000 new homes, whilst endangering our waterways in the process. Considering that fact in the light of the hundreds of thousands of UK homes just standing empty quickly exposes the bogus nature of the government’s stated reasoning.
However, the push to build new houses at ever-greater costs to the environment is perfectly in line with the motivations of a landlord class of politicians hellbent on private profit. And, as ever, the public will have to pick up the tab for the this pollution nightmare.
Additional reporting via Agence France-PresseSupport us and go ad-free
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