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Nutrient Neutrality: Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2023

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question given in the other place by my honourable friend Minister Maclean.

“Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up tabled a Written Ministerial Statement yesterday on the Government’s plans, but I am happy to provide an update to the House. In proposing the amendments, we are responding to calls from local councils, which want the Government to take action to allow them to deliver the homes their communities need. The Government recognise that nutrient pollution is a real problem, but the contribution from new houses is very small compared with that from other sources such as industry, agriculture and existing housing.

We are already taking action to mandate water companies to improve their wastewater treatment works to the highest technically achievable limits. Those provisions alone will more than offset the nutrients expected from new housing developments, but we need to go further, faster. That is why, as well as proposing targeted amendments to the habitats regulations, the Government are committing to a package of environmental measures. Central to this is £280 million of funding to Natural England to deliver strategic mitigation sufficient to offset the very small amount of additional nutrient discharge attributable to up to 100,000 homes between now and 2030. We have also announced more than £200 million for slurry management and agricultural innovation in nutrient management and a commitment to accelerate protected site strategies in the most affected catchments.

In our overall approach, there will be no loss of environmental outcomes and we are confident that our package of measures will improve the environment. Nutrient neutrality was only ever an interim solution. With funding in place, and by putting these sites on a trajectory to recovery, we feel confident in making this legislative intervention”.

My Lords, the Statement asks why the Government took the decision to use the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill for these amendments. I bring the House’s attention to the fact that on 11 July, I expressed our concerns about the Government’s approach to the proper and timely legislative scrutiny of the levelling up Bill. On that particular occasion, I was referring to the late addition, following Committee, of the Government’s decision to add in a whole raft of amendments on childminding.

Now, at an even later stage in the Bill’s progress, amendments that introduce significant changes to the habitats regulations have been tabled by the Government, limiting the ability for full parliamentary scrutiny and consideration. Does the Minister agree with me that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill appears to have become a dumping ground for anyone’s good—or bad—ideas? Does she also agree that, in order for these very important issues to receive proper scrutiny from your Lordships’ House, further time will have to be allocated? If not, how does she envisage that these key issues and others that are still to be debated will be dealt with in just one day next week, given that we have already agreed to start early at 11 am?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that. I understand her concerns, but this has been quite a complex issue to deal with. But it is an important issue; we need these measures to unblock housing, as well as other developments such as hotels and care homes, which connect to standard wastewater treatment works. This also covers, by the way, septic tanks. We need this; it has been complex and we have taken a little time to ensure to ensure that we are putting in the mitigation to deal with the environmental issues—not as a sticking plaster, as nutrient neutrality was, but at source. We have a Bill that is about levelling up; I think it is important that that Bill is used for this important issue. I am sorry; we will give noble Lords the required time, as we promised with the childcare amendments, to discuss this fully and I am sure we will get through the rest of the Bill in the time allowed.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership, but also as a director of Wessex Strategic, which has an interest in housebuilding—so I have a foot in both camps here. But I am very clear about which side I am on, and hats off to the Office for Environmental Protection for actually saying very robustly how this proposed change of legislation really stands as a regress of environmental law.

As chair of a local nature partnership—and my colleagues throughout England will have a similar issue—I can say that we are at the moment trying to persuade stakeholders to contribute to local nature recovery strategies. These are absolutely core in terms of what it says on the tin: nature recovery. That is on the Defra side, yet here in terms of levelling up we have the Government saying, “We’re not interested in that agenda; we actually want to change and regress environmental legislation”. So my question to the Minister is a very practical one: how do I and my colleagues as chairs of local nature partnerships persuade stakeholders —farmers, housebuilders, businesses and communities—to take local nature recovery strategies seriously when the Government are giving a completely different view on nature recovery?

I think you explain to people that we are building houses that people will need in the areas that that particular group works in, and that we do not accept that this constitutes a regression in environmental outcomes. The packages of environmental measures, backed by significant additional investment, will more than offset the very small amount of additional nutrient discharge attributable to those 100,000 houses. They should carry on the great work that they are doing. We should be building out those houses and at the same time investing in making sure that we are dealing with the environmental outcomes at source.

My Lords, I was speaking today with businesses which have been working with farmers and land managers to develop mitigation schemes that could be used by housing developers. They were, I think it would be fair to say, in a state of shock. The rug has literally been pulled out from underneath their business plans. They said that there are other ways in which the Government might have approached this. People have been working on the idea of a levy as an alternative and on the idea of changing the planning system so that housing developers could later in the process bring in mitigation schemes. What we have seen is a sudden nuclear option from the Government to just throw away what has been there without any kind of replacement. Can the Minister tell me whether the Government have considered these other proposals of a levy or of changing the way in which mitigation schemes come in, or have they just gone ahead with this single stroke without any consideration or consultation?

As I said to the noble Baroness opposite, this is why it has taken time. It has taken time to look at all the options. As far as farmers are concerned, the package that we are offering includes £200 million for slurry infrastructure grants, which are really important to farmers, and £25 million for nutrient management innovation. There is a lot of innovation going on, but farmers need support to be able to deliver it. I think farmers may not have seen all the information that is here, but I am sure that when they do, they will support it wholeheartedly. We know that agricultural outputs put a significant amount of nutrients into water—far more than small housing developments do—and we want to help farmers to deal with that.

I want to give an example of what has been stopped by this: a proposal for a change of use around a house in multiple occupancy in the Solent to include one additional resident was dismissed on appeal due to the additional nutrient pollution. That cannot be right. Another example, which was reported in the Times, is that of a retired couple who have struggled for seven years to convert barns on their Herefordshire property into four homes, including one for their son. The scheme received outline planning permission in 2016, but nutrient neutrality rules have left them unable to build to this day. We want those houses, but we also want to protect the environment, and that is what we are doing with these amendments.

In the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill we address pollution at source by placing a new statutory duty on water companies in designated catchment areas to upgrade wastewater treatment works by 2030. Interestingly enough, the analysis suggests that this will lead to about a 69% reduction in phosphorus loads and around a 57% reduction in nitrogen loads in total from wastewater treatment works across all the affected catchments, reducing a significant source of nutrient pollution and supporting the recovery of habitat sites most affected by this pollution. This is on top of the much wider improvements being driven forward through our plan for water.

My Lords, when the Minister introduced the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill into this House on 19 December, in accordance with the Environment Act, she made a statement. I quote from the front page of the Bill:

“Baroness Scott of Bybrook has made the following statements under section 20(2)(a) and (3) of the Environment Act 2021 … In my view … the Bill will not have the effect of reducing the level of environmental protection provided for by any existing environmental law”.

Given that, as my noble friend Lord Teverson said, the Government’s statutory watchdog, the OEP, has said that the amendments that she has tabled to this Bill to reduce water quality will demonstrably reduce the environmental protection afforded by current laws and that they are a “regression”, does she stand by her statement?

Yes, I stand by our statement. As I think I have said before, we do not accept that this constitutes a regression on the environmental outcomes and therefore we do not agree with the Office for Environmental Protection, because it took into account the amendments without the mitigation alongside them, as I understand. The package of environmental measures, which are backed by significant additional investment, will more than offset that very small amount of additional nutrient discharge attributed to the development of 100,000 houses between now and 2030. So, I do not agree with the noble Baroness. I stick by what I said because we are mitigating any small amount of additional nutrient discharge.