Amendment 247

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (7th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 13 September 2023.

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Baroness Willis of Summertown:

Moved by Baroness Willis of Summertown

247: Clause 158, page 184, line 21, at end insert— “(c) in upgrading each nitrogen significant plant and each phosphorus significant plant—(i) publish a compliance and investment plan for each plant before upgrades are commenced, setting out how upgrades will be delivered,(ii) within each compliance and investment plan set out how upgrades will, wherever feasible and possible, use catchment-based approaches and nature-based solutions to secure a reduction in nutrient discharges equivalent to those required to meet that limit, and(iii) report annually to the Water Services Regulation Authority, the Environment Agency and the local planning authority on progress against the agreed compliance and investment plan.”(1A) A sewerage undertaker may not publish a plan under subsection (1)(c) before a draft of the plan has been approved by the Water Services Regulation Authority and the Environment Agency.(1B) The Water Services Regulation Authority and the Environment Agency must advise the local planning authority if compliance and investment plan monitoring suggests that the pollution standard will not be met and a local planning authority may disapply its obligations under Schedule 13 of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 on receipt of such advice.(1C) The Environment Agency may exercise its functions under the Environmental Damage (Prevention and Remediation) (England) Regulations 2015 (S.I. 2015/810) if compliance and investment plan monitoring suggests that the pollution standard will not be met.”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment will require sewage undertakers to secure OFWAT & Environment Agency approval for plans for upgrading plants in sensitive catchment areas, including plans to prioritise use of nature-based solutions to reduce nutrient pollution, thereby unlocking wider environmental benefits. The amendment also requires water companies to provide annual reports on progress towards meeting those plans, with failures to deliver plans on time leading to financial penalties.

Photo of Baroness Willis of Summertown Baroness Willis of Summertown Crossbench

My Lords, at an earlier stage of the Bill, I made the case, with others, for amending Clause 158, which concerns the statutory requirement for water companies to upgrade sewage plants to meet new nutrient standards in the areas worst affected by pollution. We welcomed this, but although it was seen as a good step forwards for improving water quality, frustratingly, it specified only that such upgrades should take place at the sewage disposal works themselves, usually meaning traditional engineering systems and solutions, which in themselves relied on concrete materials. Amendment 247, tabled in my name and with the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, was therefore designed to enable effective use of restored habitats, known in this context as nature-based solutions, by water companies to also meet those standards.

As we pointed out in Committee, those nature-based alternatives can be a really effective and very cheap approach to soaking up nutrient loads and reducing the pollution reaching rivers, as well as providing excellent habitats for biodiversity. Our amendment also had strong support from water companies and Ofwat, but in Committee, the Government’s argument against it was the suggestion that it could somehow let water companies off the hook by allowing them to use such nature-based measures to fudge the delivery of their upgrades. We have therefore brought back this tweaked amendment, in which we have added an explicit requirement for water companies to secure agreement for compliance and investment plans from Ofwat and the Environment Agency before commencing their updates—so we are putting a fail safe in there. We have also included in the amendment the ability for the Environment Agency to impose monetary penalties on water companies for failing to deliver on the compliance and investment plans.

Over the summer, concessions in this area were tabled by the Government, which I really welcome. Those amendments are really positive in principle. However—this is a very big “however”—I fear that Amendment 247 may become very insignificant for the environment if the other government amendments recently introduced into this group are passed. I will therefore briefly speak to those as well. As I am a scientist, I will address the amendments from a scientific perspective rather than addressing their constitutional and legal aspects. In particular, I want to focus on Amendment 247YYA, which amends the habitats regulations to remove controls on nutrient loads in rivers for those that are associated with housing developments.

The amendments are based on the premise that the extra nutrient loading in areas where the relevant houses will be built will be less than 1% of the loading of the existing housing stock. This is where a key piece of evidence is missing: what is the loading of the existing housing stock? The Home Builders Federation would like us to believe that houses contribute 5% of excess nutrient loads in rivers in England compared with 50% from agricultural activities, so it is all the problem of farmers and not of housebuilders.

I quote from the Home Builders Federation:

“It is estimated that all existing development, including residential, commercial and the rest of the built environment, contributes less than 5% towards the phosphate and nitrate loads in our rivers—meaning the occupants of any new homes built would make a negligible difference”.

But the evidence base is, very strangely, lacking: where does that 5% come from? Searching for it leads me to believe that the figure has been extrapolated from a 2014 Defra report, The Impact of Agriculture on the Water Environment: summary of evidence, which was used to inform the 25-year environment plan. The first thing to note is that this report has since been updated by Defra, and the most recent statistics stand as follows:

“Agriculture is the dominant source of nitrate in water (about 70% of total inputs), with sewage effluent a secondary contributor (25-30%)”— not 5%.

I also looked at other data that could support this level of 5% from the built environment, so I did a search of academic studies that had been published in the peer-reviewed literature in the past three years in similar climatic regions across the world to look at the percentage source of pollution in river catchments that contain a mix of agriculture and urban development. I could not find a single example that suggested a value as low as 5% of the nutrients in rivers coming from housing. One found that, in a large catchment containing seven rivers, 14% of nutrients were from wastewater from residential buildings; in another, it was 33%, and 28% in another. All were significantly higher than the 5% that we have been told is the likely impact. For the UK, a recent assessment by Greenshank Environmental also indicates a far higher nutrient load in rivers from housing, closer to 36%. I therefore urge other noble Lords not to take this 5% figure too seriously.

Worse than this, if Amendment 247YYA goes through, we will never know the true value, since the amendment instructs planning authorities to assume no increase in pollution, prevents them requesting an assessment to investigate pollution further and even goes as far as to instruct authorities to ignore any evidence of potential adverse impacts; for example, as provided by scientific studies or even NGOs. It simply cannot be acceptable to amend one of our key environmental protections like this.

These amendments also fly in the face of the environment statement on the Bill, which says:

“The Bill will not have the effect of reducing the level of environmental protection provided for by any existing environmental law”.

That does not seem to be the case. The Government’s own adviser, and the chair of the Office for Environmental Protection, made this point in a letter to the Government last week.

In conclusion, I will not be supporting these later government amendments. I urge other noble Lords to do the same, not least because in this country we are already dealing with extremely polluted rivers. In February this year, the Environment Agency reported that only 14% of our rivers are classified as being in a good ecological status. It also stated that, without new interventions, this figure will drop to just 6% by 2027. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, and to assist noble Lords participating in this debate, I will speak to the government amendments in this group. I will of course address the amendments tabled by noble Lords and the wider debate in my closing remarks.

All the amendments in my name address the major issue of nutrient neutrality, which has effectively stalled or blocked completely housing development in affected areas. For procedural reasons, and agreed in the usual channels, I will treat the tailing amendments—Amendments 247YE and 247YX—as de-grouped.

This issue is hampering local economies, depriving communities of much needed housing and threatening to put the SME builders out of business. Nutrients entering our rivers is a real and serious problem, but the contribution made by new homes is very small compared with that from sources such as industry, agriculture and our existing housing stock. Government Amendments 247A to 247YW cover a range of improvements to our current approach to improving wastewater treatment. These amendments respond to comments and concerns of noble Lords in Committee about more nature-based and catchment-based approaches. I hope they will be welcomed.

I now turn to Amendment 247YYA, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown, which would require a competent authority to make a reasonable assumption for relevant developments that nutrients from that development will not adversely affect the integrity of the site. The assumption we are asking competent authorities to make is reasonable for two reasons. First, this assumption is limited to the development where the wastewater is treated by a wastewater treatment works or private treatment system regulated under the environmental permitting regulations. This means that nutrient loads in wastewater will remain strictly controlled through the environmental permitting regime, which places legally binding duties on water companies, and through the regulators of the water industry, which are subject to the requirements of the habitats regulations. Secondly, the mitigations that we are putting in place will ensure that there are no additional nutrient loads from residential development.

If we are to take these reasonable steps, we need to amend the habitats regulations in the way our amendments set out. This is a carefully targeted and specific change, aimed only at addressing a disproportionate application of the regulations since the Dutch nitrogen case in the European Court of Justice. Following the findings in this case, since March 2022 housing development in affected catchments has been stalled or blocked—even though new housing contributes such a small proportion of pollution.

In these areas, following the guidance that Natural England was required to issue, development may not be consented unless and until, case by case, house by house, mitigation is in place. This applies even though the additional pollution we are talking about—the additional nitrate and phosphate which remains in the water after domestic sewage is treated—will not get anywhere near the waterways unless the houses not only have planning permission but have been built and occupied.

New development is stalling at the point of planning permission, or even, in many cases, after permission has been granted. It is an absurd situation that is undermining local economies, costing jobs, threatening to put small developers out of business and, above all, leaving communities without the homes that they want and need.

This is not to say that the problem of nutrient pollution in our rivers is unimportant—it very much is—but developers and local planning authorities are bound up in a burdensome and expensive process that does nothing to give certainty to anyone, creating huge opportunity costs. In some catchment areas, hard work by Natural England, environmental groups and developers has started to allow some housing to be consented. However, having listened to the concerns of local communities, local authorities and housebuilders, it is clear that these schemes are moving too slowly, with no guarantee that demand can be met imminently.

In short, our habitat protections are rightly prized, but in this case they are focusing huge effort on a very small part of the problem and distracting from the root causes of nutrient pollution. Therefore, in parallel to the amendments we propose, the Government have set out an ambitious plan for nature recovery. We are, through existing provisions in the Bill, obliging water companies to upgrade wastewater treatment works in designated catchments by 1 April 2030. These provisions alone will outweigh the nutrients expected from the new housing developments by putting in place wider upgrades for the long term and will benefit existing houses, not just new ones.

We are providing Natural England with £280 million to expand and evolve its existing nutrient mitigation scheme. Natural England’s own judgment is that this is sufficient funding to compensate for any additional nutrient flows from up to 100,000 homes between now and 2030.

We will work with Natural England to develop what are known as protected site strategies—plans drawn up in partnership with local communities that will chart a course to full restoration of the most affected habitat sites in catchments where demand for housing is highest. These will further be underpinned by action to address the real sources of nutrient pollution: conducting at least 4,000 farm inspections each year to make sure that slurry and other pollutants are handled in the right way; investing £200 million in grants for improved slurry storage and equipment; and devoting £25 million to farming innovation in nutrient management and making sure our farmers get the best out of new technologies. All these measures will play their part in ensuring the Government meet their legally binding target to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution from agriculture into the water environment by at least 40% by 2038, with the interim target of a 10% reduction by 31 January 2028, and a more stretching 15% in the relevant catchments.

Before I conclude, I turn to Amendments 247YX and 247YY, which provide for delegated powers in support of the principal provisions. With your Lordships’ leave, I will also speak to Amendment 247YYZB from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. I am grateful to the Delegated Powers Committee for its comments on these powers and take seriously its considerations. I wrote to the committee earlier today.

It remains the Government’s position that the powers we are taking are necessary and proportionate. While the power provided for under these amendments is couched in broad terms, this is as a consequence of the complexity of the existing law—complexity acknowledged by the Delegated Powers Committee. However, I wish to make it clear that the Government will use these delegated powers sparingly, and only to avoid unforeseen confusions or contradictions that may arise. There is also a sunset clause, which ensures the powers will fall away in 2030, which should allow sufficient time to ensure that the statute book is operating as intended.

The Government have also reflected on some of the points made in recent days and agree that there would be benefit in providing for consultation prior to the use of these powers, as well as ensuring that the vires do not extend beyond what is strictly necessary. We therefore intend to accept Amendment 247YYZB in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead.

I wish to end by noting, for the benefit of noble Lords, the views of both developers and local authorities on the Government’s approach. The Home Builders Federation noted:

“With some areas having been blighted for 4 years, the prospect of a swift resolution will be much-needed good news for companies on the verge of going out of business”,

while the District Councils’ Network noted that

“It will unblock tens of thousands of much needed new and affordable homes for more than 40 of our member councils”.

This is why the Government have decided to act. It is why this debate matters so much. I hope my explanation has been an assistance to noble Lords in considering these amendments.

Photo of The Duke of Wellington The Duke of Wellington Crossbench 4:45, 13 September 2023

My Lords, I declare my interests as may be relevant to this debate. I will speak in a minute to my Amendments 247YYAA, 247YYAB, and 247YYAC, but I must start by asking the Minister—I remain surprised by this—why she has, on Report, tabled such a large number of amendments that seek to reverse previous government policy on nutrient neutrality.

As the Office for Environmental Protection, set up by the Government in the Environment Act 2021, has stated—and I quote from Dame Glenys Stacey’s letter of 30 August

“The proposed changes would demonstrably reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in existing environmental law. They are a regression”.

After a further exchange of letters with the Defra Secretary of State and a meeting, Dame Glenys wrote a second letter on 1 September. Again, I quote:

“What is certain is that the proposed amendments would amount to regression in law”.

She goes on to say:

“This is contrary to statements made in each House of Parliament on behalf of the Government”.

I have quoted from the Office for Environmental Protection to show that this is not in any way a political attack on the Government’s policy. The Office for Environmental Protection is the public body set up to protect and improve the environment by holding government to account. Ministers must therefore understand that any opposition to these amendments comes only from a desire by Members of this House, on all sides, to protect and improve the environment.

We all recognise the need to build more houses, and where possible to remove obstacles to achieving this, but surely none of us wishes this to be achieved at the expense of further damage to the environment. Ministers say this is fully mitigated, but that is not clear in the amendments. More houses create more sewage, and therefore there must be mitigation. But the Government appear to be relieving housebuilders from the cost of this mitigation and passing it to the taxpayer.

The announcement of additional money for Natural England is very welcome, but surely there must be a continuing requirement for housebuilders to contribute financially to mitigation. The Minister, in her letter to Peers on 29 August, said:

“The Government intends to work with the house building industry to ensure that larger developers make an appropriate and fair contribution to this scheme over the coming years”.

I must respectfully say to the Minister that that is not enough. There must be a legal requirement for housebuilders to contribute in each case to protecting the environment from further pollution created by new houses.

I now turn to the three amendments in my name. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Parminter, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for adding their names. I know also that the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, had wanted to sign but was pipped at the post by the noble Lord, Lord Randall. Noble Lords will therefore understand that these are cross-party amendments with no party-political motivation.

For the benefit of noble Lords who have not been able—or inclined—to get into the detail of this large group of late-in-the-day government amendments, I must quote from them. In government Amendment 247YYA, in new Regulation 85A(2)—inserted by paragraph 11 of part 2 of new Schedule 13—it reads:

“When making the relevant decision, the competent authority must assume that nutrients in urban waste water … will not adversely affect the relevant site”.

I am surprised that any Minister from any department—or any party—could propose to Parliament such a paragraph. It is instructing a planning authority to disregard the facts. By any definition, that would be bad law. In paragraph (3) of new Regulation 85A, which I also seek to delete, the Bill instructs the planning authority not even to assess any possible pollution and, in paragraph (4), the planning authority is again instructed to disregard any assessment made by third parties, even the appropriate nature conservation body. I hope that all noble Lords will agree with me that this is just too far.

Here, I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for various meetings in the last few days. I also received at 7 pm yesterday a long letter from the noble Lord, Lord Benyon. Ministers argue that all the government amendments in this group are a package and that we should not look at individual clauses in isolation. I regret that I do not accept that argument. I believe that the duty of this House is to improve and then approve clear and coherent legislation. The government amendments are defective in wording and contrary to science in intention. I cannot believe that any noble Lord of whatever party could vote in favour of such proposed legislation.

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench

My Lords, I speak to this group of amendments, which come under the broad heading of nutrient neutrality. I declare my interest as a member of your Lordships’ Built Environment Committee, under the distinguished chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. The committee will release a report next week on the impact of environmental regulations on development. As our report is still under wraps, I cannot quote from it, but it provides important insights into the issues before us regarding nutrient neutrality, and my comments today will not, I think, clash with any of the committee’s findings.

I find it very hard to take a different perspective from that of my noble friend the Duke of Wellington—in so doing, I think I may be in a somewhat small minority—but government action of some sort has to be taken to address the mess we are in with nutrient neutrality. Out of the blue came the advice to local planning authorities that unless impossibly onerous mitigations were put instantly into effect, all housebuilding should be banned in the designated catchment areas where rivers were being polluted—advice that local planning authorities could not ignore without the risk of expensive judicial reviews. This moratorium was sprung on local authorities and the private and social housing developers with immediate effect without being phased in over time, without consultation and apparently against the advice of the Government’s own statutory advisers.

Yet, no one is claiming that new housebuilding is the main cause of the problem of river pollution. It accounts for a modest proportion, and here we get into some technical arguments. We had heard in the committee that less than 5% of the problem was attributable to new homebuilding but today the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown, called that figure into question. With her expertise, I feel sure that she is right. That makes the case for greater mitigation measures than have been proposed to date. I wish we had heard her evidence in our committee proceedings.

Nevertheless, whatever the figure, housebuilding is not the main culprit here. The big culprits are, first, intensive farming—poultry farms, fish farms and pig farms—and secondly, the water companies, which have not done what they should have done for years. But the penalty unfairly falls squarely on those building new homes who, in all other respects, satisfy planning conditions and meet environmental regulations.

The Government talk in terms of the current moratorium meaning 100,000 homes not being able to proceed in the years ahead. The housebuilders, whose figures I am now more doubtful of than perhaps before, told the Built Environment Committee that the moratorium risks the loss of 41,000 homes for each year the ban is in place. I know that many people welcome the demise of any housing development—and the performance of some housebuilders on quality, affordability, design and more leaves a great deal to be desired—but like it or not, we must ensure that there are enough homes to go round while also tackling those failings.

We have a lot of catching up to do. The Centre for Cities and the IFS have pointed out that we would have another 4.3 million homes if we had matched the housebuilding of the average European country. Already we are going to miss the widely accepted target of 300,000 homes a year for a series of other reasons, and now the nutrient neutrality moratorium is setting us back even further. Some 20% to 30% of the tens of thousands of homes lost in this moratorium comprise affordable housing that is so badly needed. Local SME builders in an affected area cannot go elsewhere and jobs and businesses are lost. Remember that new developments will now bring with them 10% or more biodiversity net gain, making new homes a net contributor in the future to environmental goals.

Something must certainly be done to remove this arbitrary, damaging and unfair housing ban. The Government’s proposals effectively take nutrient neutrality out of the consideration of planners altogether and provide some extra funds for mitigation, but it is a pretty crude approach. A long-term solution has to address the intensive farming issues and get on top of the water company failures. A more considered and comprehensive policy change with clear guidance for planners and practitioners needs to set nutrient neutrality alongside water neutrality and all the other nature recovery measures. If this is what the Government intend—and these government amendments today represent a very short-term pause while a more serious policy response is consulted on and worked out—then maybe it is a necessary stopgap. But we certainly should not be in this position and I hope the Built Environment Committee’s report will contribute to a fairer long-term, comprehensive approach that reconciles the need for vital environmental improvements with equally important efforts to tackle acute housing shortages.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Labour 5:00, 13 September 2023

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the South Downs National Park Authority, which is a major planning authority. I am speaking to Amendment 247, to which I have added my name, and the three amendments in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, to which I have also added my name.

The noble Baroness, Lady Willis, has set out with great clarity the rather modest intention of our original Amendment 247, which was to underpin the delivery of nutrient neutrality measures, which are necessary to halt the catastrophic damage to some of our most protected wetland sites. Since then, of course, the Government have tabled a raft of amendments that would have the opposite effect to that which we were seeking to achieve in our original amendment. That Government package goes against many of the fundamental principles of environmental protection to which we agreed during our consideration of the Environment Act.

We have heard reference to the letters from the chair of the Office for Environmental Protection, Glenys Stacey, who has made it clear that the government amendments amount to a regression in law. In the meeting that the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, had with Peers this week, she said that that judgment by the OEP was wrong as it had not considered all the factors. That is a serious allegation to make, and I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on how these differences of opinion between the Government and the independent regulator, the OEP, are being addressed.

Our Amendments 247YYAA, 247YYAB and 247YYAC address the heart of our concerns about the Government’s proposals. First, as the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, has said, they place an intolerable requirement on public bodies to ignore the evidence of water pollution in plain sight and pretend that it does not exist. In fact, I am surprised that these late amendments were not sent back to the lawyers due to defective drafting; as has been said, they now require public bodies to look both ways at once, facing different requirements in different legislation. As Matthew Parris said in his recent Times article, under the government proposals,

“when considering an application to build, the authorities must assume that what poisons rivers does not poison rivers”.

This is madness. Planning authorities currently have a responsibility to take all material considerations into account, including the need for more housing and for environmental protections. The government proposals will undermine our evidence-based planning system and set a dangerous precedent.

Secondly, it is being argued that these measures are necessary to unlock housebuilding. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Best, and normally I agree with him on so much, but I felt that his contribution was rather intemperate and had obviously been swayed by some of the so-called evidence given to his committee. I wish that, as he said, the committee had heard evidence from the noble Baroness, Lady Willis, before it made its decisions on this issue, because delays in securing planning permission are not the biggest barrier—it is the inability of developers to build out schemes that have already been approved. We all know the statistics about how much is already in train but has not been developed.

The further uncertainty caused by the government amendments may mean that fewer houses, not more, will be built. Because the legislation is not retrospective, there will be tens of thousands of homes across the country for which consent has already been given, with nutrient provisions in place, but on which the developers have not yet begun. So planning departments will need to enforce the nutrient provisions in relation to those consented developments, leading to a two-tier system that will last for many years.

Thirdly, as Natural England has confirmed, it is perfectly possible to address the balance between the habitat regulations and housebuilders through non-legislative means. There are already a number of well-established schemes that do this, adopting a more strategic approach to the nutrient migration scheme. The Government and the noble Lord, Lord Best, have suggested that everything has come to a halt. This is simply not the case. Housebuilding is still happening, and people are working with Natural England to make sure it is being done in an environmentally sensitive way.

Finally, these proposals will be a major blow to the rollout of the green finance system, which is necessary to support nature recovery. For example, in the South Downs we estimate that we have about 4,000 hectares of nutrient neutrality offset land in the Test, Itchen and Solent catchment areas alone. That represents around £400 million of potential income to landowners and farmers to support economic opportunities and help with the agricultural transition, while also supporting nature recovery.

Without nutrient neutrality offsetting, the Government have no hope of reaching their private finance targets in the environmental improvement plan of £500 million every year by 2027—so it is a lose-lose situation. I urge noble Lords to reject these ill thought out plans and find a consensual way to deliver a housebuilding programme that enhances, rather than wrecks, our water quality.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I am grateful to speak, in part in my capacity as chairman of your Lordships’ Built Environment Select Committee, to which the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred. I should explain that we have, perhaps coincidentally, spent the last six months taking evidence—not “so-called evidence” but actual evidence—on precisely this topic. The subject of our inquiry has been the interaction between environmental regulations and development. Inevitably, the question of nutrient neutrality has occupied an important place, because it is so important and live. The noble Lord, Lord Best, has explained that the report is not yet published; it is practically at the printer, and we hope it will appear next week, so we are not in a position today to quote from it. However, I see a number of members of the committee in the Chamber and I hope that they will speak, because we have been very struck by what we have found.

A great deal of what we found was explained by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and I do not propose to repeat all of that. I will speak more briefly, but I would like to draw attention to one conclusion we reached without any dissent. When new environmental legislation is introduced, which is well thought out, consulted on and given adequate time for implementation, it is normally absorbed, adopted and implemented by the housebuilding industry with no disruption or difficulty. That is the right way for us to make environmental legislation; it is what we normally do. However, in this case, that is not what has happened at all.

The root of the problem is a European Court of Justice decision in 2018 in a case related to Dutch farming—which, as we all know, is probably the most intense farming in the world—and the consequences it had in the Netherlands for run-off into watercourses. That judgment created a more restrictive interpretation of existing habitat regulations than had been agreed and understood before. Because we were still part of the European Union—I shall not go into the European consequences of this—Natural England rightly understood that this judgment had an effect in England as well. So it took legal advice on what consequences it had.

It then went off and discussed it with Defra, and Defra look legal advice. I have not seen that advice, but it appears to have concurred with the advice obtained by Natural England. Our committee still does not quite understand why Defra insisted at that stage that nobody should be allowed to discuss this, and that it all had to be kept very secret between Defra and Natural England. The result was that when it announced the consequences of that new decision, as it understood them, there was no warning whatever. There was none of the normal consensus, building of consultation, buying in, or time for implementation. All of a sudden, it appeared in a number of catchment areas covering, I believe, approximately 14% of the land area of England. It is absolutely true that it has not stopped housebuilding in every part of England but, in effect, overnight there was a moratorium in roughly 14% of the land area of England even on the completion of sites that already had planning permission. This is utterly disruptive and completely unplanned and, in my view, evidence and argument for treating this particular circumstance as a special case. The Government need to take steps to sort this out, untangle ourselves and make a plan that allows us to deliver all our housebuilding and environmental objectives over time.

That is why I support this package. It does involve a few optical devices, but they achieve the effect. It effectively says that you can carry on building housing that we desperately need—local housing, affordable housing and student accommodation, which are all caught by the ban—but there will also be additional, mitigating measures. More money and bigger efforts will be put into addressing the pollution in our watercourses. That is the sort of balance we need to achieve if we are not to be paralysed completely. There is a strong reason for thinking of this as a special case.

Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Willis, I have not extensively researched how big a contributor housebuilding is. I have simply looked it up on Google. There are 26.5 million dwellings in England and Wales. We build a number of new houses each year. The government target is 300,000, but we do not get close to this. We are very lucky if we hit 250,000—which is 1% of the existing stock. Even if all the nutrient problems in our watercourses came from housing, new housebuilding would still be a very small fraction of what we are discussing; it would be less than 1%. But we know that it does not all come from housing. A great deal of it comes from poor agricultural practice built up over years. It comes from piggeries and from chicken farms that are not properly managed. We know that it comes from sewage works that are inadequate for the combined flows of water and sewage they are expected to take. So, when you take that into account, it is not even 1%; it is a fraction of 1%. We just need to keep this in proportion and not be excessively hysterical about it.

As I said, it is a matter of great regret that this debate is taking place before the Select Committee report appears next week. I encourage noble Lords to read it when it appears. I think they will find a great deal of evidence in it that is relevant to what we are discussing today.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative 5:15, 13 September 2023

My Lords, we ought to remember that we are discussing the amendments that the Government have put before us, rather than a committee report that we have not got and which will, no doubt, be of great interest.

We have to recognise that there may well be an issue here that needs properly to be addressed. My concern is that this is not the way to address it. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, suggested that when we deal with the environment, we should consider it very carefully, go out to consultation and make sure that what we are doing is right. None of that has happened here. The Government have put down a whole series of amendments to this Christmas tree of a Bill and some of us are suggesting that we should not do this—although, were they to come forward with something that met the particular problems in a way that was not so manifestly bad, I am sure we would be supportive.

I rather object to the fact that the newspapers say that I am a Conservative rebel. It is the Government who are the rebel here, because they are not being conservative over this. First, they are asking local authorities—I can hardly believe it—to disregard the facts. This is the kind of attitude that we see in the Republican Party in the United States, the people who do not believe in climate change, the anti-vaxxers, who say “Don’t look at the facts”. The second thing that local authorities are being asked to do is encourage ignorance: not only “Don’t look at the facts” but “Don’t look at any evidence or find any evidence—just do what the Government say should be done”.

The argument the Government have put forward is that we need this to build more houses. I was the Secretary of State responsible for that. I had a long history of dealing with the housebuilders, who tell us that this will increase the number of houses. The number of houses built has nothing to do with this at all—it is about whether the housebuilders think that that number will keep the price up at the level at which they have it. The housebuilders are not building the houses they have already got planning permission for in areas which are not in any way affected by this. We know that perfectly well. It is a canard, if I may use a foreign word, to suggest that this will have any effect on the number of houses. The number of houses in this country is not reaching 300,000 because the housebuilders have bought the land at a price which means that they can sell only at a level which is too elevated for the present time, with mortgages as they are. Let us not kid ourselves that, by voting against this, we will in some way reduce the number of houses, because we will not.

I find it extremely difficult when I am told that the housebuilders should not pay for the damage they do. Three arguments are used. First is the housemaid’s argument: it is only a very little bit—“It is only a very little baby”—and therefore we do not have to take it into account. As a former chairman of the Climate Change Committee, I have to say that that is the argument everybody uses every time you want to do anything—“It isn’t me”; “They are bigger than we are”; “Don’t do it in Britain because of China”; “Don’t do it because of the farmers”; “Don’t do it for anyone, but don’t ask me to pay for my pollution”.

Secondly, I thought that the Conservative Party was in favour of the polluter pays. Were my noble friend the Minister canvassing in the Mid Bedfordshire by-election at this moment, would she turn to an elector and say, “In future, housebuilders building in the Wye Valley or near the Monnow will not have to contribute for the cost and the damage they do, but you will through your taxes. You, the Mid Bedfordshire voter in the by-election, will now be asked to subsidise the housebuilders”? That is what these amendments are about—the subsidising of the housebuilders.

In the end, we could go even further. Why do we not have a Bill to say that housebuilders can ignore health and safety arrangements because then more housing would be built? Why do we not say that local authorities must not know what the health and safety laws are and must not investigate what they might be so that houses might be built?

This is one of the worst pieces of legislation I have ever seen, and I have been around a long time. It is entirely unconservative. If all this was so obvious so long ago, why was it not included in the Bill in the first place, or in some other Bill? As we have, in my view, some pretty peculiar legislation on ex-EU laws, why have the Government not used their powers therein?

I sat through debate after debate on how we were going to protect the British people instead of the court in Brussels and on how we would have proper protection against government mishandling of the environment. We were assured that Glenys Stacey and her department would be treated with all the respect that one would have expected. We were told that she would have all the powers necessary for the Government to take her seriously. What have they done? Two pathetic letters, and no statement—this is a judgment that you should make and we will change things because that is why you are there. That means that the British people are now less protected from government mistakes than any country in the rest of Europe. I make no comment about Brexit, but that is where this House and the other place have left the people of Britain.

I do not believe that the Government can do these things and not expect future generations to say, “If they could do that on this issue, what about other things?” They could say that local authorities can ignore this, that and the other and do not need the facts. Indeed, we do not have the facts here—there is no proof about these houses or any of this; it is an assertion by the Secretary of State.

I am not a Conservative rebel—I am a Conservative. Therefore, I am voting for the principle of the polluter pays, for facts and for knowledge, and I am not voting for ignorance and the disregard of facts.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

The noble Lord, Lord Deben, is not an easy act to follow, but I shall try.

We were lied to in this House. Our Government promised us repeatedly that there would be no lessening of environmental protection at any time. They promised us that and they lied. As a result of Brexit, we are now almost unprotected. Loads of us knew at the time that they were lying.

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the noble Baroness knows full well that parliamentary rules do not allow her to use those words, so we would be grateful to her if she could withdraw them.

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Baroness knows full well the words that she has just used, and we would be most grateful to her if she could withdraw those words.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

I genuinely did not know that I could not say that in this House. I know that in the other place we cannot say it. It is very difficult for me to withdraw words that I know are the truth, but I will withdraw them.

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

If the noble Baroness looks at the Companion, she will see that it is very clear on parliamentary language. So, I respectfully point to the Companion—and if she could read that and withdraw those words.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

I withdraw them.

We were told repeatedly during the passage of the Environment Bill that there would be no lowering of environmental standards in the post-Brexit legislation. That clearly has happened; environmental standards are down. I suppose that it was obvious, because the Government promised, but they refused to put it in that Bill; they absolutely refused, when we kept asking them. This is the same package of obfuscation as their refusal to guarantee post-Brexit workers’ rights or food standards—it is all part of the same thing.

I know that I am a bit cynical about this rotten Government, but even I would not have predicted that the Government would choose such a blatant act of environmental vandalism as these late amendments to the levelling up Bill. Our rivers and streams are already being pumped full of excrement on a daily basis, so why would Ministers feel that it was all right to pump any more in? How are they going to explain that when they pump it into the waterways of the Norfolk Broads or the Lake District?

The clear outcome from these amendments is that water pollution will be higher. The Government can argue as much as they like that the overall effect will be better because of mitigation but, to anyone who understands nature, that will be nonsense. The two most dangerous amendments are government Amendments 247YY and 247YYA. Amendment 247YY introduces a Henry VIII clause that allows the Government to revoke or amend any Act of Parliament or retained EU law concerning the “environment, planning or development” in relation to

“any effect of nutrient in water”,

and the way in which regulators take into account the effect of nutrients in water. Those are huge, far-reaching powers that will last for several years. There is no requirement in the amendment for these changes to be based on science or evidence; the Government will be able to force regulators to act against science and evidence.

The other dangerous amendment is government Amendment 247YYA, which forces authorities and regulators to assume that water pollution from proposed developments will not affect habitats, even when evidence proves that the water pollution will have a detrimental impact on habitats. So, the Government are forcing authorities to assume that water pollution will not affect habitats. This is complete and utter nonsense. They are banning authorities from requiring any assessment of the impact of water pollution on habitats and, worse still, the Government are forcing authorities to disregard the results of any evidence of the impact of water pollution on habitats, even when there is absolute proof that it will cause harm.

We cannot amend such bad law. I thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for his role in this campaign, because his important amendments highlight the sheer absurdity of the Government’s proposal to force planning authorities to pretend that water pollution either does not exist or is not harmful. The Minister talks about more taxpayers’ money being put into mitigation measures as if it were a good thing, so the developers will be allowed to pollute and the taxpayer will be expected to cover the cost of the clean-up. People do not want to pay more in tax, and certainly not if it means more pollution—and certainly not if it means that housing developers can make bigger profits.

It is relevant that housing developers have put £60 million into Conservative Party coffers over the past decade. This policy is the payback by the Prime Minister on that investment. These donations, which account for around one-fifth of Conservative Party funding, had dried up at the beginning of the year; the developers had gone on strike and were refusing to hand over more money until the Government gave a big boost to their share price and dividend payments. I am not sorry to get in the way of such systemic corruption.

The best thing we can do with these government amendments is to reject them. The Government can bring forward fresh legislation if they want to insist on these, and that can be consulted on properly by local authorities and public bodies. They can have this debate as we all get ready for a general election and see how it goes down in a country where swimming in our rivers and on our coasts has become a dangerous sport. We can stop these dangerous government amendments—and we can do that by simply voting “not content”.

Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Judge 5:30, 13 September 2023

I shall speak to my amendment, Amendment YYZB, to which the Minister offered her support. It proposes two brief additions to the new clause proposed in Amendment 247YY, prompted out of concern about the wording of the clause we are being asked to approve.

I make it clear that this amendment is a probing one only. I very much regret—this follows a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Deben—that we are being asked to deal with this at such short notice at Report, particularly in view of the importance of the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Moylan. This is a great misfortune, because we should really be dealing with this in the ordinary way in Committee, when we have the freedom to propose and discuss amendments and improve their wording stage by stage. We are faced with a measure produced at Report, and my amendment is an attempt to probe and draw attention to defects, not to cure a basic defect in the way the whole process is being handled.

My wording, and the points I have mentioned in my amendment, have been reinforced by what was said by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in paragraph 9 of its report: that the power proposed to be given to the Secretary of State by this clause is

“subject to little by way of constraint”.

That is a generous understatement, I suggest. It is a broad, open Henry VIII clause. In its full vigour as it stands, it lacks any requirement for consultation or any indication of the criteria that must be satisfied in this highly sensitive subject.

There is one other aspect of this clause that I, as one who believes in the quality and integrity of the legislation we are asked to approve, find very disturbing. This is a very controversial subject that has been worked through already, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, pointed out in her reference to the Environment Act. The question raised in my mind when I saw that we were dealing with the whole issue of nutrients in water was, “What does the Environment Act say about it?” There is no indication in the Government’s new clause that that Act has been given any thought at all.

Water is dealt with in Part 5 of that Act, and the powers of the Secretary of State in relation to water quality are set out in some detail in Section 89. We find here a set of carefully designed powers that are combined with requirements for consultation before they are exercised. They also take account of the fact that some of England’s rivers flow into or have their source in Wales or Scotland, so there is provision for consultation with the devolved authorities.

There are other safeguards in that Act as well. Section 20 provides for Ministers making Statements to Parliament about Bills making changes to environment law. We have not had that, because of the way this has been handled. Of course, Section 22 provides for the establishment of the Office for Environmental Protection, with important regulatory and reporting powers. What disturbs me—I may be mistaken—is that all this seems to have been ignored by the Government in formulating this new clause. It is as if the environment protections, which we spent so much time two years ago discussing in great detail, in an Act which the Government themselves promoted, did not exist. I think that many of us remember the satisfaction we felt when that Act was eventually passed, because we had done such detailed work on improving the Act in the interests of our environment. Yet apparently—and I stress the word “apparently”—it has been ignored.

My amendment seeks in a modest way to meet the point that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee makes in paragraph 11 of its report about the warning by the Office for Environmental Protection. There appears to have been no public consultation prior to the publication of these new measures. The first paragraph of my amendment would require regulations made under this clause to be consistent with what Section 89 of the Environment Act requires, and the second would require consultation.

However, this is a probing amendment, and I will not be moving it when the time comes. The first reason for that is that I support those who argue that this new clause should not form part of the Bill. It is not just a matter of small amendments; it is a much more fundamental objection, as others have made clear. The second is that, quite frankly, I am not confident that my amendment, with its mere reference to Section 89 of the Environment Act, is an accurate way of trying to reconcile the clause with what is in the Environment Act. It requires more careful study, and simply to accept my amendment as the Government propose to do is not the way to deal with it.

I do not suggest, and I never did, that I have the complete answer to this; I simply raise issues for the Government to consider. If the Government succeed in the vote that will take place, then I urge them to consider an amendment along these lines at Third Reading. However, if they bring back the legislation at some later stage, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, contemplated, then I very much hope that they will pay attention to the points that my amendment raised.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee, Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee

My Lords, in the spirit of brevity, I will not speak to the amendments to which I have given my name. However, I would like to address the amendments that the Government have brought forward, which, if accepted, will be a profound change in how we regulate for the environment in this country. To be clear, we are not talking about all water catchments or all houses. We are talking about the most environmentally sensitive sites: those which are home to our curlews, lapwings, and shelducks. These are our internationally and globally significant chalk streams—sites of greatest environmental sensitivity. That is what we are talking about, not the whole country and not all homes.

Here on these Benches, as on other Benches, we recognise the need for more homes. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, I took slight exception to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Best. The current situation around nutrient neutrality is not a ban on housebuilding. There is a system whereby, if you wish to build houses in a particular sensitive fresh-water area, you can do so if you buy credits to mitigate the damage you will cause. For example, in Poole harbour, one of our most magnificent sites for wildlife and wetland birds in this country, a proposal came forward to build homes. In 2021, a site of 420 acres was built in Bere Regis to mitigate the damage that would have been caused, and 2,111 homes were built. There is not a ban; there is a system of mitigation where the developers must pay—I will return to this point in a moment—to mitigate the environmental damage they are going to cause.

There may well be problems. It is a system that has been in existence for six years; all of us would accept that it is not perfect. Mitigation credits are not, perhaps, coming on as quickly as they need to. The guidance to local authorities about what is acceptable for mitigation may not be as clear as it needs to be. However, that does not mean that, at the 11th hour, the Government can suddenly throw in an amendment to a Bill. You collaborate; you consult with all the parties; you give adequate parliamentary scrutiny. Then, as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said, I am sure Parliament would accept that.

We have heard a lot this afternoon already about a report which we are going to get from the Built Environment Committee. I will give you something from a report we have already had: the report of my committee, the Environment and Climate Change Committee, which has looked this year at how we will meet our 30 by 30 target, to protect our nature which is in such a dire state. We looked at the habitats regulations, which are what the government amendments will amend. We concluded, on a balance of the evidence, that those habitats regulations should be retained. However, we said that if they were going to be subject to amendment, because there were clearly some teething issues with this scheme, then any changes should not be

“subject to amendment without an appropriate degree of parliamentary scrutiny or where the protections afforded by the regulations are weakened”.

We can hardly call this process today an appropriate degree of parliamentary scrutiny. The Office for Environmental Protection has been clear: these government proposals will weaken regulations. Like the noble Lord, Lord Deben, I am distraught—I think that is the word I would choose—at how the Government have responded to the clear communication by the OEP, which was set up to be the watchdog for the environment in this country.

I have talked about why I think this process today is not the right one. However, there are other people who are being affected: not just local authorities, who are asked to live in an Alice in Wonderland world where, on this in particular, they must ignore the evidence. I want to talk about farmers, because many of us in this Chamber today were with the NFU this morning. It is Back British Farming Day. As BPS is being taken away from farmers, they have been told by this Government to find alternative sources of private income, to undertake environmental work and to keep their incomes up. If the current scheme is lost, whereby farmers bring forward mitigation offerings for which they get paid, then they lose another source of income at a time when BPS is going. To me, that seems wrong, when we must support British farming at this critical time as they move from BPS to the new system of environmental land management schemes—I think the whole House supports that, but we recognise that it will be a tricky time. These amendments will take that money away from farmers now.

Before I finish, I will make another point on polluter pays. I am in 100% agreement with what the noble Lord, Lord Deben, says on this. This is a Government which have backed the polluter pays. We sat through the Environment Act, and the Government have proposed that, in November, all Ministers will need to have due regard for the environmental principles policy statement. This gives six principles that Ministers must look at before they bring forward a policy; one of those is the impact of polluter pays. I wonder whether the reason why we have this here today is because it is September, and they did not want to consider something like this further down the line, when the EPPS and the obligation on Ministers to consider polluter pays—which the Government have signed up to—comes into effect.

I am not making a party-political point, but in many respects, what is being proposed here today is not a conservative approach. For many reasons, and certainly on these Benches, we will do all that we can to support affordable housing in the right places, and to support our environment, which desperately needs protection. We will try to vote down these retrograde amendments.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 5:45, 13 September 2023

My Lords, I follow the noble Baroness in backing British farming, particularly today with the NFU hospitality earlier. On that note, farmers feel beleaguered, and I think that it is fair to say that upland farmers, where most livestock production takes place, are suffering at this time for the reasons the noble Baroness said. I welcome the words from my noble friend the Minister in presenting the government amendments. She recognises that farmers need help, particularly with slurry treatment and storage, and looking to innovation and new technology, which is very welcome indeed. I think that less welcome will be the 4,000 additional farm inspections, which I am sure will spook a number of farmers.

I take this opportunity to support the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown, on her Amendment 247. I shall listen very carefully to what my noble friend the Minister says in her response. It is absolutely right—and goes to the heart of the earlier amendment on SUDS—that we look more to natural flood defences. I repeat my interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Water Group, and also as a chair of the experts who looked into a report commissioned by CIWEM, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. I do not know how else to paraphrase this other than to say that I hope that taking lumps out of waste and using it as a resource to add value is something that the Government will take up in due course. In this whole debate, that will contribute to reducing the impact of sewage.

On the Dutch case, I do not know if it is generally known that in Holland and parts of the UK, such as East Anglia, nitrates appear more naturally in the soil. So if you are contributing to the soil through either farming or sewage, you are increasing the levels of sewage, nutrients and pollution in certain parts of the country. That is something that the Government must be aware of; they should seek to try to limit the damage caused in those ways.

I must ask my noble friend the Minister and others who are committed, as we all are, to the target of 300,000 houses a year why developers are fixated on three-bedroom, four-bedroom and five-bedroom houses. Inevitably, they will contribute three, four or five times more to the wastewater going into our water courses—sometimes with pollution. Why are we not looking to reduce that and, particularly in rural areas, satisfy the need for one-bedroom or two-bedroom houses to help first-time buyers and young people into the property market, as well as older people, including former farmers wishing to come off the land and live in a village or market town?

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown, on arguing her amendment so persuasively. I also support my noble friend the Duke of Wellington, with whom I worked in the European Parliament in a previous life, who spoke so powerfully to his amendments —but, as he is aware, they are not the entire solution.

I urge the Government to take their amendments away and work at them in more detail. That is for one simple reason, about which I will end on a note of caution. My noble friend the Duke of Wellington referred to the OEP’s previous letters, but on 12 September it reported on and identified possible failings to comply with existing environmental law in relation to the regulatory oversight of untreated sewage discharges. That relates to Defra, the Environment Agency and Ofwat. I urge my noble friend the Minister to pause the government amendments and not, potentially, break existing environmental law in the way that the Government are preparing to do with the amendments she has put before us.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Ipswich Lord Anderson of Ipswich Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister said, in introducing the amendments, that they were carefully targeted and specific. With great respect to her, she could scarcely have chosen less appropriate adjectives for the Henry VIII clause that she seeks to introduce through Amendment 247YY. It is astonishingly broad, even by modern standards, as my noble and learned friend Lord Hope said. To give the House a flavour, it allows the Secretary of State to make any provision that they consider “appropriate” about the operation of any relevant enactment connected to the effects of nutrients and water that could affect a habitat’s site. Relevant enactments include all Acts of Parliament, including the future one we are debating today.

I will add a few other points on that clause to those made by my noble and learned friend. The Delegated Powers Committee, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, has stated that such broad Henry VIII powers must always be fully justified—all the more so, one might think, when they are introduced at the last moment without any public consultation or parliamentary scrutiny. The committee also said that inadequate justification for such exceptionally wide powers had been given and recommended, in terms, that this clause should not form part of the Bill.

The position has not improved since then. The explainer circulated on Monday had nothing to say about the clause at all, although I and others raised it with Ministers last week. In fairness, the Minister said that she had written to the committee today, but the letter did not appear on its website when I checked 10 minutes ago, and I have no reason to suppose that the committee has changed its mind.

We cannot get into the habit of passing clauses such as this one without the clearest and most compelling reasons for them. This clause may have been conceived as a fail-safe in hastily prepared legislation, but its effect is to abdicate the influence of Parliament altogether over substantial and important areas of policy. Why would we sign up to that? The Minister undertook that these delegated powers would be used sparingly, and I do not doubt her good intentions. However, with respect to her, no such undertaking can have any value when the clause will expire not in this Parliament or the next, but in the Parliament after that, on 31 March 2030. I see every reason to follow the recommendation of the Delegated Powers Committee and to vote against the addition of the amendment.

There is a practical, as well as a constitutional, reason why I propose to vote against the amendment. If those who wish to oppose the main amendment—Amendment 247YYA—are successful, they will also need to exclude this clause because, if we do not, the powers that it grants will be quite broad enough to allow the Government simply to reintroduce the substantive measures by secondary legislation, or indeed to do anything else that they might wish to do in this general area, without Parliament having the power to amend it or, in practice, to block it. As I said, that is true not only of this Government but of the next Government and the one after that.

I was relieved to hear that my noble and learned friend Lord Hope will not press his probing amendment, because, as he said, it is inadequate to meet the problems identified by the Delegated Powers Committee. Like him, I am not content with Amendment 247YY and, if it is put to a Division, I will vote to exclude it.

Photo of Lord Carrington Lord Carrington Lord Great Chamberlain

My Lords, I declare my interests in farming as set out in the register. I will add one or two comments to those made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, Lady Parminter and Lady McIntosh, on the progress made on nutrient neutrality, its effect on the farming community and the wish not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

It appears that the Government are concerned that the speed of the supply of mitigation options is holding up planning consents. Has the Minister considered the possibility of delaying the requirement for developers to have nutrient mitigation in place to a defined date after build, rather than before building commences, as is currently the case? This would ensure that existing processes and tools are kept in place and not wasted, and that those who have invested in mitigation schemes are not left with stranded assets—for example, many local planning authorities have purchased land and farmers have invested heavily in feasibility and planning works. In maintaining the emphasis on requiring developers to fund the measures, the essence is that the polluter must pay.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, briefly, I associate myself with the remarks made in a very fine speech by my noble friend Lord Deben. We entered the other place on the same day, in June 1970—I have been here continuously since, and my noble friend was briefly absent from the other place for a year or so. I think that we both feel exactly the same: a deep sense of shame that the Conservative Party should behave like this. I thought that I had got over feeling ashamed after the two last disastrous Conservative Prime Ministers. I have a great feeling of support for our present Prime Minister, but I am deeply saddened. It must be because he does not have the long parliamentary experience to see how Parliament should be treated by the Executive. This is no way to legislate.

On this extraordinary Bill, I pay genuine tribute to the stamina and energy of my noble friend the Minister. If anyone ever drew a short straw, she drew a whole packet full and got one free. She has behaved impeccably, but she has been landed with something that no Minister should be landed with: a Bill, at its very last stage, being added to in such a way without proper consultation or discussion.

This does not need to part of this Bill. If the Government believe there is a problem over house building and the environment, it can bring in another Bill in the King’s Speech that can have a proper Second Reading in the other place. It will not get scrutiny in the other place; Bills do not get it there these days. It could then go through all the necessary processes and be through before the end of the next parliamentary session.

This is just not right: a Christmas tree Bill effectively giving unlimited and unfettered powers to a future Secretary of State—not a Minister of State or an Under-Secretary—who will be able to do things without the full, proper approval of Parliament and who will have, effectively, an unfettered right to meddle and interfere, and all this just two years after the Environment Bill, one of the few Bills of this Parliament in which one could take any real degree of pride. That was, in no small measure, due to the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. His amendment went into the Bill, and we were all delighted that it did. This House improved that Bill. Now, with a series of late amendments, we are undoing the good that was done two years ago. This is something up with which we should not put.

Photo of Earl Cathcart Earl Cathcart Conservative 6:00, 13 September 2023

My Lords, I have houses for rental on my farm in Norfolk and in London. Sadly, I have been caught up in the restrictions. In March 2022, I proposed to convert two redundant barns into houses, but my council wrote to me to say that Natural England was blocking all developments because of nutrient neutrality restrictions. Further, the council said that at the present time, there were no identified solutions available to resolve this impact, and that it might be a year before it is resolved. Here we are, 18 months later and Natural England is still blocking the developments without any solution for these restrictions.

Nutrient neutrality laws are certainly well intentional, but blocking new home building will have little material impact on improving the quality of water, as my noble friend Lord Moylan said. Our waterways and coastline are undeniably in a terrible condition, and the situation is not improving. If anything, it is getting worse with the inability of the water companies to treat water effectively. At the same time, we have an undeniable chronic housing affordability and supply disaster. We see the laws intended to protect against and treat pollution blocking thousands of desperately needed homes while the source of this pollution runs practically unchecked. The water companies can do what they like.

The wastewater from all my houses goes into my sewage treatment plant which is emptied regularly so that no mucky water can get down into the ditch and the rivers. In addition, we have a second reserve tank for any runoff, just in case. How many more months or years do we have to wait until we have a solution? Or is Natural England going to just say, “Sorry, you can’t build at all”? I support the government amendments.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Crossbench

My Lords, I had not intended to speak in this debate. However, on Monday evening I went along to the very helpful briefing session hosted by the Minister. I thank her for that session. Two points arose that particularly stuck with me and caused me to say something this evening.

The first relates to the Office for Environmental Protection, which we have heard about from numerous previous speakers. When the Minister was asked why the OEP thinks this proposal will reduce environmental protection, the reply came that the OEP had not considered the matter in the round. While it is true that building extra homes adds a certain amount of pollution to water, and we can debate what percentage, this proposal says that to offset that there are mitigation measures. That is indeed what the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in her reply to Dame Glenys Stacey.

I thought it was odd that the OEP had not considered the matter in the round, so immediately after the meeting on Monday, I emailed Dame Glenys Stacey to ask her whether indeed the OEP had neglected to consider the mitigation side. As it happened, Dame Glenys was away, but Natalie Prosser, the chief executive replied immediately and said that it was not true. In fact she said that, in line with its correspondence, it has considered the matter in the round. So I ask the Minister to take this opportunity to correct what she said to us in the briefing meeting on Monday evening.

My second point—which has also been referred to by many previous speakers including the noble Lord, Lord Deben, in most eloquent terms—is about facts and evidence. I asked the Minister and her officials whether they could show us their workings that demonstrate that the increase in pollution from extra homes will be more than offset by the mitigation measures that are proposed in this amendment. No answer was forthcoming; instead, the Minister said that she believed these measures will enhance the protection of the environment. Belief has an important role in our society, particularly in places of worship, but I have never heard a conservation scientist, an ecologist or someone concerned with protecting the environment claim that by believing that we can make our waters cleaner or that by believing we can protect curlews and other endangered species. Without seeing the workings, without understanding anything about the evidence that underpins this proposal from the Government, I simply cannot see how anyone could vote for it.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, I briefly rise to associate myself with the remarks of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and a number of other noble Lords. I have enormous sympathy for the Government. I believe that we absolutely need new housing. We have a problem with the shortage of housing stock. House builders should not have unnecessary barriers placed in the way of them getting on with development. However, I urge the Minister to listen to the sentiments expressed all around this House about the way in which the Government are currently planning to fulfil their laudable desire to ensure we get more homes built.

As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said, Amendment 247YY would give carte blanche to this and any future Government to do what they liked to override the environmental protections of which I am so proud. This Government have done more than most other Governments to implement legislation that protects the environment. However, there is a risk that we will be tearing that up.

I congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, on his amendments to government Amendment 247YY, which is asking us to ignore the science and local authorities just to assume that no pollution will happen even when they are being told it will or know that it will.

As my noble friend Lord Deben said, the “polluter pays” principle is important, but maybe what is happening here is a cart and horse problem. If my noble friend the Minister were able to assure the House that the mitigation measures that I am sure are genuinely intended to offset the pollution caused by any new developments will be in place before those developments pollute rivers, we would be able to consider that. However, there is no guarantee that any of the mitigation measures, however well meant and well intentioned, will be able to be put in place before the pollution happens.

I therefore urge my noble friend to think again about the Government’s apparently panicked reaction, which perhaps is intended to please housebuilders, who are very keen to get on with developing houses in places that they know would be of great value to them. I have enormous sympathy with my noble friend Lord Cathcart, who wants to do some development and is being blocked. However, we have to protect the environment. I am sure my noble friend would like to do that, but I hope that we can understand that in keeping this delicate balance of building new homes today but protecting our habitats and precious environment in the long run, we must try to prioritise these precious areas of the country that we as a Government have done so much to protect. As I say, I am proud of that, and we must not tear those protections up.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for this constructive debate. It has been wonderful to hear expertise from across the House on such an important issue as environmental protections.

I remind everybody that this is day seven on Report of the levelling-up Bill, which we began in January with Second Reading, and this is the first time this issue has been brought to the attention of the House. We have to ask ourselves, why? I cannot remember who raised the fact that this issue was known about five years ago. The Government have known that it has been an issue of contention for housebuilders for a considerable number of years, yet it is brought to us on day seven on Report, in a form that means we cannot have any prior discussion of it. I wonder whether that relates to a sudden rise in the share price of house- building companies.

The argument that housebuilding is jeopardised unless the Government take action to throw out the protection of our watercourses is completely false. I think it may have been the noble Lord, Lord Deben, who said that more than 1 million planning permissions are awaiting development. As my noble friend Lady Parminter so expertly said, the sites in question—it is not everywhere; it is particular sites—are some of the most environmentally sensitive in this country, if not in Europe. Why would we put those sites at risk when there is an opportunity to protect them for the future of our children and grandchildren?

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Willis, emphasised the importance of evidence. Where is it? There is a vacuum when we look for evidence in support of the government amendments. Indeed, there is the reverse: there is evidence that I think they have chosen to ignore.

The Government have framed the issue as an either/or: either housebuilding or the environment; either house- building or water protection. However, that is a totally false dichotomy. It is possible to build homes and protect our environment. Not only do these government amendments require local planning authorities to ignore protections; what is almost worse is that at an earlier stage of the Bill the Minister, who at that point was the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, was very pleased to tell the House how the government amendments were being brought forward to protect chalk streams. We were all delighted. However, chalk streams are some of the areas that will be affected if these government amendments go through. Therefore, two months ago, it was about protecting chalk streams—wonderful. Now it is about throwing out those protections on a whim.

We on these Benches will vigorously oppose those government amendments, and if and when they are brought to a vote, we will be in the Not-Content Lobby, particularly on Amendment 247YY and then the new schedule in Amendment 247YYA. You can have both housebuilding and environmental protection, and that is what we will vote for.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:15, 13 September 2023

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown, for her introduction to this debate. It has been a very important debate with some excellent contributions, and I am sure that it has given many noble Lords on the opposite Benches food for thought. I will speak to my Amendment 247YYDA and will oppose certain government amendments in this group.

The current nutrient neutrality rules do not work, as we have heard from noble Lords today, but we do not think that the Government’s proposals work either. We certainly do not agree with the powers being introduced in government Amendment 247YY, or government Amendment 247YYA, which introduces new Schedule 13 and means abandoning legal protections for the nation’s most precious and sensitive habitats, on the premise that this is the only way to increase housing supply. As we have heard from noble Lords, this is completely wrong. It is entirely possible to balance the need for more homes with the need to protect nature. That is why have tabled Amendment 247YYDA, which would establish a process to consider alternative ways to reform nutrient neutrality regulations. Perhaps I can draw the attention of the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Moylan, to our proposals.

The amendment would launch a public consultation to consider the alternatives, allowing for an evidence-based approach that the Government’s new schedule completely lacks. Before I expand on how that alternative could be established, I want to explain why we will be opposing the introduction of the government amendments in this group.

Put simply, this change of policy means that developers will no longer need to mitigate harmful pollutants when building in the most environmentally sensitive areas. Noble Lords have made quite clear their concerns about this approach. We believe that the resulting increase in river pollution is a wholly unnecessary price to pay for building the homes that we are in short supply of. We also believe that the way the Government have introduced the amendments has been entirely inappropriate.

As we have heard from other noble Lords in this debate, the Bill has been passing through Parliament for more than 16 months, and yet this policy has been added only at the very last minute, during the final days of Report. It is accompanied, as we have heard, by excessive regulatory powers, which we will oppose, and which, as we have heard, noble Lords on the Delegated Powers Committee, have referred to as “open-ended”. I would not suggest that the word “proportionate”, which the Minister used, was the correct response. What is more, the committee noted that

“there appears to have been no public consultation or engagement with stakeholders prior to the publication of these measures”.

For a group of amendments which the Government claim could cost £230 million—other estimates suggest they would cost far more—no consultation or engagement is, frankly, astounding.

As the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, said, but which I think needs repeating, the Office for Environmental Protection has issued statutory advice to say that the measure

“would demonstrably reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in existing environmental law”— in other words, a regression. We have already heard, and so the House will not need further reminding, that during consideration of the retained EU law Bill the Government repeatedly ruled out ever taking this step. On Monday 26 June, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, told this House that

“the Government will not row back on our world-leading environmental protections”.—[Official Report, 26/6/23; col. 469.]

However, the Office for Environmental Protection says that this is exactly what is happening. We believe, therefore, that it is wholly inappropriate for this House to agree these amendments to the Bill.

Instead, I urge the Minister to consider the approach that we have outlined in Amendment 247YYDA, which would open up the possibility of nutrient neutrality reform on the basis of consultation and evidence, and through the principle of good law. This is an amendment which has benefited from the input of the Local Government Association, and, I am pleased to say, has the support of Wildlife and Countryside Link. As I mentioned earlier, it would allow for a public consultation on various proposals which have been suggested by other Members of this House and other organisations across the UK. While I will not delve into the various options now, noble Lords will note that proposed new subsection (2) outlines the key alternatives. I also draw attention to the fact that the amendment stipulates that the consultation would launch, be completed and laid before both Houses within three months. I see no reason why the Government cannot provide an evidence-based solution to this Parliament.

It is abundantly clear that there are far better ways to build the new homes we need than at the expense of our precious environment. I hope the Minister will accept our amendment, withdraw the government amendments, and agree that polluting our rivers is not a price we need to pay for sufficient housing supply. If not, as other noble Lords have indicated, we will oppose the government amendments.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My Lords, let me conclude this debate by responding to a number of points that have been made, starting with the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. I shall not name all noble lords, if your Lordships do not mind, in each response, but those who asked the questions will know who they are, and questions were asked by a number of noble Lords.

I turn first to the question on the views of the OEP. As my right honourable friend the Environment Secretary has set out very clearly in her response to the Office for Environmental Protection, we do not accept that this will lead to regression in environmental outcomes. It is the Government’s judgment that it will not. The reform package will improve the conditions of these habitat sites. The obligations on water companies to upgrade wastewater treatment works in designated catchment areas by 1 April 2030 will far outweigh the nutrients expected from the new housing developments, by putting in place wider upgrades for the long term. These upgrades will benefit existing houses, not just new homes, providing an effective approach to reducing existing wastewater nutrient pollution, not just forestalling the possible future pollution from development. On top of that, we are doubling investment in Natural England’s nutrient mitigation scheme to £280 million, which will be sufficient to offset the very small amount of additional nutrient discharge attributable to the 100,000 homes between now and 2030.

Staying on the OEP, my noble friend Lady McIntosh suggested that the Government broke the law on sewage. We always welcome scrutiny from the OEP, and we are co-operating with it fully to support its work in many areas. The OEP has not concluded that the Government broke the law on combined sewer overflows; it issued an information notice requesting a further response from Defra, Ofwat and the Environment Agency, and is continuing to investigate.

I move on to another issue that the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, brought up, as did many other noble Lords: how can we justify asking local authorities to effectively ignore the facts? I dealt with this in my opening speech, but I am going to repeat it.

The assumption we are asking competent authorities to make is reasonable for two reasons. First, this assumption is limited to developments where the wastewater is treated by a wastewater treatment works or a private treatment system regulated under the environmental permitting regulations. This means that nutrients from wastewater will remain subject to the strict legal duties that are binding on water companies and others who operate wastewater treatment systems. These duties are becoming stricter in many affected catchments, thanks to the wastewater treatment work upgrades mandated through the Bill. As I said before, the Government estimate that this will lead to a 69% reduction in phosphorus loads and around a 57% reduction in nitrogen loads in total from wastewater treatment works across all affected catchments, significantly reducing nutrient pollution at source in a principled manner.

Secondly, a package of measures we are putting in place will ensure that we more than offset the additional nutrient flows from new housing. This includes the significant additional investments we are putting into Natural England’s nutrient mitigation scheme. Local authorities will be able to object to planning applications on the basis of nutrient pollution; it is mandatory to consider it. Local planning authorities will still have to consider the impact from nutrient pollution as a material planning consideration, as the amendments made no change to the wider operation of the planning system.

Planning decision-makers will continue to have regard to the national planning policy and material planning considerations, and the Government are clear that the focus of planning decisions should always be on whether the proposed development is an acceptable use of land, rather than the control of processes, where these are subject to separate pollution control regimes. Nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment works is controlled under environmental permits, and planning decisions should assume that these regimes will operate effectively.

Another issue brought up by a number of noble Lords is that the developer should pay. The Government agree. It is essential that housebuilders contribute fairly, and we all agree with the principle that the polluter should pay. We are working with the HBF to structure a fair and appropriate contribution system. My officials are in active discussions with it about the design of these schemes, including considering how they are delivered.

The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, brought up an issue with the current mitigation schemes and whether we are undermining their good work, including among the farming community. I do not think that we are. We are doubling the funding available for nutrient reduction schemes today and making clear that we expect contributions from the larger developers. However, the Government are removing the obligation on developers to secure nutrient credits up front on a project-by-project basis because this has caused an unacceptable barrier to development. Our plans will ensure that the new nutrients from development will still be offset while shifting our longer-term focus to restoration. Natural England will now have the funding and certainty to lead this work for the remainder of the decade. We expect that it will seek to partner with third parties to deliver nutrient reductions and associated environmental co-benefits where this represents good value for money.

I move on to the Henry VIII powers. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, asked for an example of how the Secretary of State might use these. It is hoped that the amendments as they stand will be sufficient in ensuring the policy intent of unlocking housing blocked by legacy EU law on nutrient neutrality. However, due to the complex nature of the legislative system in this area, the Government may need to make incidental, consequential and similar provisions to give effect to this policy intent. The power will be used only where necessary to give effect to our policy intent. The Government remain bound by the ambitious, legally binding targets for water quality and biodiversity and will not allow any regression in environmental outcomes through our new approach. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, asked whether the Henry VIII powers could reinstate the measures. The Government have specifically constrained the Henry VIII powers so that they are unable to amend Part 6 of the habitats regulations. Therefore, they could reinstate these measures using these powers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, brought up that 70% of the 100,000 houses already have approved mitigations in place, but that is not the case. As we have heard, in some areas of the country, developers, environmental organisations, local authorities and Natural England have begun to invest in mitigations. However, we have listened to the concerns of local authorities, communities and housebuilders that, while a positive development, mitigation schemes are moving far too slowly, with no guarantee that demand can be met imminently, and estimates carry significant uncertainty given the developing nature of the market and risk of underdelivery. There is no guarantee that demand can be met soon enough to unlock what we consider to be much-needed homes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, brought up the issue of houses not being delivered all over the country—we were not stopping these houses. I suggest that she listens to Councillor Darren Rodwell, the environmental spokesman for the LGA and a Labour councillor:

“Thousands of new homes are on hold due to river pollution and water level concerns so we are pleased that the Government has acted on our calls for urgent action and funding to address pollution at source. However, short-term local solutions are still needed to address environmental concerns about river pollution. Councils are calling for a doubling down on long-term action to protect rivers by focusing on reducing pollution at source. Councils want to work together with government, agencies, developers and the agricultural sector to find ways to address pollution locally so homes can be built, while doing everything possible to reduce pollution at source and maintain safe water levels”.

I agree with Darren Rodwell, and that is what we are delivering.

I think those were all the main questions. If I have missed anything, I will look in Hansard and write to noble Lords. I will now address the specific amendments.

First, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown, that this upgrade duty will be monitored and enforced effectively. The Government work closely with the water industry regulators to ensure that the water companies are compliant with their statutory duties and bring forward improvements as agreed and set out in the water industry national environment programme. There will be regular liaison between water companies and the Environment Agency to discuss progress and risks throughout the delivery of the programme between 2025 and 2030.

Through this, the Environment Agency will ensure that the water companies deliver the required upgrades to agreed timelines. If this is not the case, the Environment Agency will take all the necessary enforcement action, including through the use of its powers under the environmental damage regulations as amended by this Bill. Together with Ofwat’s established process for ensuring that water companies are adequately funded to deliver on their business plans, these processes will see that the water companies comply with their statutory duties outlined in the Bill. As such, I hope I can reassure the House that this amendment is not necessary.

Turning to the other amendments on this issue, I hope that my explanation has been sufficient to convince my noble friend the Duke of Wellington of the powerful reason for the change that the Government are making. It is absolutely not the case that these changes will result in nutrient pollution, whether from wastewater or any other source, being disregarded. The assumption that we are legislating that the competent authorities must make for the purposes of an HRA for a plan or project is very reasonable in the context of our wider approach.

First, the approach that the Government are taking is narrow, as it relates only to the consideration of nutrients in HRAs and does not seek to amend or change the operation of the material planning considerations in other decisions within the planning system. This means that pollution from development affecting the environment may still be a material planning consideration based on the local circumstances. The drafting carefully reflects the policy intent not to preclude an LPA from considering as a material planning consideration nutrient pollution, ensuring that, where proposed, any step to reduce pollution can still be considered and implemented.

Secondly, these legislative changes are necessary and effective only to remove consideration of nutrients in urban wastewater from the scope of the habitats regulations assessment in designated catchments. It is limited to development where the wastewater is treated by wastewater treatment works or private treatment systems, regulated under the environmental permitting regulations, so it does not apply to agricultural or industrial developments. This means that nutrients from wastewater will remain subject to strict legal duties binding on water companies and others who operate wastewater treatment systems. These duties are becoming stricter in many affected catchments thanks to the wastewater treatment work upgrades mandated through the Bill.

The Government estimate that this will lead to a reduction in phosphorous loads of around 69% and a reduction in nitrogen loads of around 57%, in total, from the wastewater treatment works across all affected catchments—significantly reducing nutrient pollution at source in a principled manner.

Thirdly, alongside these legislative changes, as I have said, we have announced a substantial package of commitments to the environment, including a doubling of the investment in Natural England’s nutrient reduction schemes to expand beyond offsetting pollution and towards restoring sites.

We are working with developers to design a contribution scheme which ensures that homebuilders continue to make a fair and proportionate contribution to this programme. This sits alongside commitments to accelerate work to recover habitat sites in the catchments most impacted by nutrient pollution and with the most acute housing pressures, and to support farmers to manage nutrients more sustainably, including £200 million towards slurry infrastructure and equipment grants and a new £25 million fund to invest in innovative farming technologies to accelerate progress towards a nutrient circular economy.

Finally, I can reassure the noble Duke that the Government did consider a range of possible approaches to this very difficult issue. Given the delays currently being caused to housing delivery in affected areas, we believe this legal change is the only way to ensure certainty for competent authorities that they can proceed with planning consent. The Government considered a number of options in reaching this conclusion, including issuing guidance about how degradations linked to imperative reasons of overriding public interest—IROPIs—could be applied within the HRA framework. However, this would continue to require lengthy case-by-case considerations and a direct link to be drawn between compensation and individual developments. It would therefore have a limited and still uncertain impact on the Government’s objectives of giving confidence to communities that housing and other development will be possible in the affected areas.

I move on to the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Caithness. The Government are seeking a power to guard against unintended consequences and to ensure a functioning statute book. Therefore, it is not appropriate to limit the scope of the power to just social housing delivery. We are very clear that it is not a problem specific to social housing. There is a critical need for housing of all tenures in this country. We do not see any justification to restrict our intervention in this way, particularly as we are clear that we are implementing sufficient measures to fully offset any nutrient impacts from changes to the habitats regulations.

I turn finally to the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock. While I fully understand the intent behind the noble Baroness’s proposal, we have already outlined the urgency of need for these interventions. The Government believe action is needed now to get on with housebuilding. Our plan would do that while protecting the environment. What is being proposed instead amounts to dithering and delay—and adds confusion rather than clarity.

I am afraid that the party opposite is planning to vote down laws that would unlock 100,000 new homes and enhance the environment. It has ignored the pleas of its own council leaders and the entire development industry, including social housing builders, to back government plans. This is the sort of short-term political manoeuvring that does nothing to benefit the British people and everything to undermine public confidence in us as politicians and our Parliament. What it is proposing will end the dream of home ownership for thousands of families and block an £18 billion boost to our economy. Let us be clear: many small businesses up and down this country need these changes—if not, they will go out of business. The party opposite talks the talk on housebuilding but this is the first opportunity to walk the walk. I ask noble Lords not to back the blockers but back the builders.

The amendments in my name seek to remove what is an unavoidably burdensome process that is a major barrier to house delivery across around 14% of England’s entire land area. They deal with nutrient neutrality not with a sticking plaster but at source. I urge this House to support them when they are moved.

Photo of Baroness Willis of Summertown Baroness Willis of Summertown Crossbench 6:45, 13 September 2023

My Lords, this will be a very short speech. We have obviously heard substantive arguments, both for and against the nutrient neutrality laws this evening. The Government’s Amendment 247A is at this point acceptable. I therefore beg leave to withdraw my Amendment 247. I do so because there are far more substantial votes to be had this evening on this Bill.

Amendment 247 withdrawn.