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Nutrient Neutrality: Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities if they will make a statement on the Government’s decision to use the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to scrap environmental protections on nutrient neutrality.

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 these amendments, we are responding to calls from local—

Order. May I just say that it is very good of you to offer to give that update? I decided that it was an urgent question—I expect Ministers to come to the House, as I did not think a written ministerial statement was the way to inform the House.

I am delighted to be here to answer this urgent question.

In proposing the amendments, we were responding to calls from local councils, which want the Government to take action to allow them to deliver the homes their communities need. At present, legacy EU laws on nutrient neutrality are blocking the delivery of new homes, including in cases where planning permission has already been granted. This has affected home building of all types, whether that is the redevelopment of empty spaces above high street shops, affordable housing schemes, new care homes or families building their own home. The block on building is hampering local economies and threatening to put small and medium-sized local builders out of business. Nutrients entering our rivers are a real problem, but the contribution made by new homes is very small compared with that of other sources such as agriculture, industry and our existing housing stock, and the judgment is that nutrient neutrality has so far done little to improve water quality.

We are already taking action across Government to mandate water companies to improve their waste water 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 that 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.

I find it extraordinary that the Minister can stand there and make that statement with a straight face. Over the past eight years, Ministers have stood at that Dispatch Box and promised time and again that leaving the European Union would not lead to a weakening of environmental standards. Those of us who raised our concerns have repeatedly been told that we were scaremongering. As recently as 12 June, the Solicitor General said in relation to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill that

“we will not lower environmental protections.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2023; Vol. 734, c. 828.]

Yet here we have it: proposals to unpick the habitats directive and to disapply the nutrient neutrality rules that protect our precious rivers and sensitive ecosystems.

The Office for Environmental Protection has itself made clear that the proposals

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

I underline that point to the hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young), who is chuntering from his seat on the Front Bench. The proposals go directly against the “polluter pays” principle by forcing the taxpayer, rather than house builders, to foot the bill for mitigating increased water pollution from house building in environmentally sensitive areas. What is particularly infuriating is that, as the name suggests, the nutrient neutrality rules were not even about improving our environment, but simply about trying to prevent pollution from getting worse.

Let me ask the Minister some important questions. On transparency, will the Government follow the OEP’s call for them to make a statement, as required by section 20(4) of the Environment Act 2021, admitting that they can no longer say that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill would not reduce environmental protections in law? Will the Minister explain how the Government will meet their objectives for water quality and protected site condition when they are at the same time weakening environmental law? What advice did Ministers receive from Natural England before the amendments were tabled? Will she explain why there has there been a complete lack of consultation with environment groups? Will she also explain what consultation there was with house builders, whom Members will have noticed are cock-a-hoop about the announcement and the subsequent boost to their share prices?

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

I thank the hon. Lady for her long list of questions; I am happy to respond to all of them in detail. On our approach, I stand by what I and the Government have said: we stand by our pledges to the environment, and we do not accept that, as she stated, we will weaken our commitment to the environment at all. It is important to consider what we are talking about here, which is unblocking 100,000 homes that add very little in terms of pollution. To be clear, our approach means that there will be no overall loss in environmental outcomes. Not only do the measures that we are taking address the very small amount of nutrient run-off from new housing, but at the same time, we are investing in the improvement of environmental outcomes. We do not agree that this is regression on environmental standards. We are taking direct action to continue to protect the environment and ensure that housing can be brought forward in areas where people need it.

The hon. Lady asked about engagement. Ministers across Government, the Secretary of State and I have had numerous meetings with all parties involved, and we have had meetings with environment groups as part of Government business. It is worth the House noting the significant enforcement steps taken on the water companies by colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Since 2015, the Environment Agency has concluded 59 prosecutions against water and sewerage companies, securing £150 million in fines. The regulators have recently launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water company sewage. We are taking action against water companies to protect our rivers, leave the environment in a better state than we found it, and build the affordable houses that the country so desperately needs, including in her constituency.

The Minister will recognise that I and many other colleagues on the Government side of the House share the admirable objectives of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) in ensuring that the water quality of our rivers improves year by year under the Government and their successors. The Minister’s proposals to amend the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill are not about damaging the status of our rivers; as I understand it, they are about dealing with a particular and specific interpretation of the EU habitats directive by the European Court of Justice in connection with a case in Holland prior to the time we left the EU. If that is the case—she has referred to the litigation and measures she has undertaken—does she agree that in special areas of conservation such as the River Clun catchment in my constituency, where no planning consent has been granted for nine years, these measures will help to unlock that while preserving the quality of the river in the catchment?

I thank my right hon. Friend very much. He is right in his observation that this has been a judgment imposed on the United Kingdom after we left the European Union. This is not a long-standing convention in any shape or form. He is also right to highlight the measures we are putting in place to protect our rivers and the environment more broadly. We are also putting in place a substantial package to help farmers to farm more sustainability, manage their slurry infrastructure more effectively and be able to drive the circular economy in farming that we all want. He mentioned specific catchments in his area. We have committed to bring forward a Wye catchment plan shortly, which I hope will address the issues he is referring to.

Oh, sorry. It has taken so long, I thought we must have moved on to Back Benchers. I call the shadow Minister.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As a result of the Government’s failure over many years to make decisive progress in tackling the main sources of problem nutrients, namely farming and waste water treatment works, the requirements for nutrient neutrality in sensitive river catchments present a challenge to securing planning permission for new housing development. It is therefore right in Labour’s view that the operation of the rules around nutrient neutrality is reviewed with a view to addressing problematic delays and increasing the pace at which homes can be delivered in these areas.

However, we have serious concerns about the approach that the Government have decided on. Not only does it involve disapplying the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, but it does not legally secure the additional funding pledges to deliver nutrient management programmes and does not provide for a legal mechanism to ensure that housing developers contribute towards mitigation.

I put the following questions to the Minister: what advice did the Government receive from Natural England about potential reform of the laws around nutrient neutrality? Did it offer a view on the Government’s proposed approach? Given the amount of mitigation currently available in the pipeline, which is estimated at allowing for approximately 72,000 homes, did the Government consider an approach based on the habitat regulations assessment derogation and a revised credit mitigation system to front-load permissions and provide for future compensatory schemes? If so, why did they dismiss that option? What assessment have the Government made of the impact of their proposed approach on the nascent market in mitigation credits, and investor confidence in nature markets more generally? Why on earth do Ministers believe developers will voluntarily contribute to mitigation under the proposed approach?

Finally, the Government claim their approach will see 100,000 planning permissions expedited between now and 2030. Given that house building activity is falling sharply and the pipeline for future development is being squeezed—not least as a result of housing and planning policy decisions made by this Conservative Government—what assessment has the Department made of the number of permissions that its disruptive approach will unlock within the first 12 months of its operation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions and remarks. I take them to mean that he will support the measures when they come before the House. I am delighted to hear his support for our sensible, practical and pragmatic approach to unblock much needed housing across the country. He asked about our engagement with Natural England; we have had detailed discussions. He asked about the current legal framework; we have looked at and discussed a number of options to make the changes, and we are taking what we believe is the right approach to unblock planning permissions more quickly than the current situation allows.

The hon. Gentleman referred to nature markets; he is right to highlight the groundbreaking work we are doing across that piece. We are continuing with our commitment to those nature markets, which are a very important part of the Government’s plan to keep our environment, protect it and leave it in a better state than we found it. That is what the Conservative Government have always been committed to and continue to be.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have spoken to developers, who, of course, support our objectives. We have very constructive dialogue with the developers, who are happy to contribute. We will have those discussions with industry, as I am sure he has heard from developers, because I know he has spoken to them all. We are on the side of those builders. It is important to say that the developers most affected by the disproportionate ruling from the European Court of Justice are not the big developers but the small and medium-sized enterprises—the small builders—some of which have gone bust. It is right that we stand behind them.

I warmly congratulate the Government on taking action on this very serious issue. I welcome sincerely the remarks from the Opposition spokesperson offering qualified support for what is being done. We have an issue whereby 100,000 homes, spanning 74 council areas, are being blocked. Those homes have planning permission already granted, but cannot be built because of the perverse legacy ruling. More to the point, could my hon. Friend confirm that there is no environmental impact, because we are doubling investment in the nutrient mitigation scheme? That is as well as developing protected site strategies for those catchment areas affected most severely by the nutrients issue, which overwhelmingly is not caused by new housing. Does she agree that the real challenge should be laid down to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on what she would say to all the hundreds of thousands of young families out there who cannot buy a home in the places they need and want, at a price they can afford?

My right hon. Friend has considerable expertise in this matter. He is right to focus on the mechanisms we need to bring forward to enable the much needed planning permission to take effect. His region in particular is affected by this issue, and I know his constituents and people across the region will be desperate to see those homes built, to allow people a step on the property ladder. We are about building a property-owning democracy.

My right hon. Friend is also right to say that we can do that at the same time as protecting the environment, which is why we have doubled the funding for Natural England’s nutrient mitigation scheme. We are investing £200 million in slurry management infrastructure and we are helping farmers with a £25 million sustainable package to help them invest in innovative farming techniques to manage their nutrients more sustainably, which can be of benefit to their farms and agricultural processes. We are going much further on those protected sites, so that we deal with the problem at source. That is what we need to focus on.

This is hardly a new problem, is it? The Court decision was in 2018, yet last year we had the levelling-up Bill, which was really a planning Bill with a bit of levelling up added on—no mention of the issue there. In December we had major consultations on changes to the national planning policy framework—no mention of the issue there. The Committee wrote to the Minister and asked how many more consultations on planning issues there would be this year. We were given nine of them—no mention of the issue there. If it is such a serious issue, why has it taken the Government so long to act? It looks like the Government are making it up as they go along. This is a panicked response from the Government to the collapsing numbers of housing starts which the Minister simply wants to do something—anything—about.

I very much value the hon. Gentleman’s scrutiny of the Government’s record and I very much enjoy coming before his Committee. We have discussed this issue, and many others, with his Committee in the past. It is right that we are taking this action. It is a serious and complex issue, and we needed time to consider all the legal aspects of it. However, what I come back to time and time again is that we need to unblock planning permissions. We need housing all over the country. We are doing that at the same time as protecting the environment and I very much hope to have further dialogue with him about this in the future.

It is always baffling to hear those who believe in environmental improvement saying that only the EU way works. Does the Minister agree with me that outside the EU we have been able to adapt our laws to what works for this country, and also make improvements such as marine protected areas and provide support to agriculture outside the common agricultural policy? To say that leaving the EU has meant a degradation in our approach to the environment is simply nonsense.

My right hon. Friend speaks from vast experience on this issue. I can do no more than agree strongly with every word. Leaving the EU allows us to make the laws that are right for our country, most specifically in the area of building the homes we need across his area and across the whole country. The point here is also that the EU legacy judgment has not improved the quality of the water. That is why we are taking further steps to mitigate the problem at source. Everybody who cares about the quality of water should welcome that.

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. The Government have just set up the Office for Environmental Protection—I was on the Environment Bill Committee when we did that—which says that this planning change is a regression in environmental protections. We should not just throw out the rules when they are a bit difficult. What advice did the Government receive from Natural England—the Minister said she spoke with it—on its approach to problem nutrients? Did Natural England green-light the proposals or is it being ignored, along with the Office for Environmental Protection?

Natural England is a Government partner. We work very closely with it, as well as with local planning authorities. We rely on Natural England to carry out some of the mitigation schemes, the nutrient credit schemes, and many others. In response to the Office for Environmental Protection, we have a different view. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) set out very clearly her response to the Office for Environmental Protection. We do not agree with it. Fundamentally, we do not agree that this is a regression in environmental outcomes overall.

It is perfectly possible to make housing development nitrate neutral in the first place. Bearwood development in my constituency contains over 2,000 new houses and is nitrate neutral through sustainable drainage and building techniques, so we can have new homes without compromising our environment and without taking good-quality farm land out for mitigation. Will my hon. Friend ensure that planning law matches that ambition?

I thank my hon. Friend very much. She is right to focus on some of the very good work that is already taking place through some individual projects I am aware are being brought forward. She is also right to highlight the role that sustainable drainage can take and we have committed to looking at that more broadly to see what more can be done with that particular policy. Planning law is very clear. It has to leave the environment in a better state than it finds it, not only in her area but across the country.

Of course we need more housing, but in my constituency the sewers are over capacity, Victorian and clapped out. I invite the Minister to meet some of the households where in times of heavy rain raw sewage not only pollutes the environment but floats around the streets, the gardens and even the kitchens. It is simply not acceptable to imagine we can somehow wave a wand to solve the housing problem. Finally, may I draw the attention of the House to an excellent website called “Top of the Poops”, which states that in my constituency there were 4,468 hours of sewage last year alone? That is completely unacceptable.

DEFRA Ministers have been at this Dispatch Box multiple times to update colleagues on the work that the Government are proud to do as part of the plan for water. This is the most ambitious and stringent package that has been brought forward to tackle this abhorrent issue. We agree with the hon. Gentleman that storm overflows and sewage overflows are wrong. That is why the £2.2 billion of new accelerated investment will be directed into vital infrastructure. We are clear that the volume of sewage discharge into our waters is unacceptable and that is why we have taken action in terms of stronger regulation, more fines and tougher enforcement across the board to tackle every source of river and sea pollution.

As the Minister knows, the levels of Somerset are some of the most environmentally enhanced areas in the UK. Natural England has destroyed chances for development. We are about to start building the Tata factory, the largest factory that this country has seen for a long time. That needs to be sorted and I would like the Minister’s thoughts. Conversely, the reality also slips. South West Water, which is an abomination, has just announced it will stop pollutants from 120,000 hectares by 2025. Can we please have a grip on the reality of both sides of this issue? If we do not, nothing will be developed in parts that are environmentally sensitive.

I am aware that my hon. Friend represents an area with acute environmental sensitivities and he is right to raise those concerns on the Floor of the House. We work across Government not only to tackle the storm overflow issue to which he refers, but to find a way to allow house building and other types of building that is much needed to drive jobs and investment, and to support businesses in his constituency, without that having a weakening effect on our environment.

I wonder if I could pick up on something the Minister said a moment ago. Natural England is not a Government partner; it is a Government agency. So far as this issue is concerned, it is literally the Government. This rule has existed since 2019 and the Government’s guidance on it has indeed got in the way of genuinely affordable, environmentally sustainable housing schemes in the Lake District and, I am sure, elsewhere. The answer was not to scrap it but to change the guidance to make it more intelligent, so that we protect our waterways and our landscapes from pollution without preventing vital development. Why did the Government spend four years dithering before panicking, overreacting and then acting in line with their own nature by damaging British nature?

The hon. Gentleman makes his points in his usual way, but without confronting the reality of the situation that affects his constituents. Of course Natural England is a Government partner and a Government body. We work in partnership with Natural England. We work constructively with it to tackle these complex legal issues. I am sure he would be the first to jump up and complain if we took action too quickly without considering the consequences. As it is, what we are doing is a sensible, proportionate measure to allow much needed development in the Lake District: homes for his constituents that have the planning permission to be built—finally.

Labour-run Kirklees Council is sitting on millions of pounds of unspent section 106 developer contributions for local infrastructure. Much of that unspent cash is for environmental projects. What confidence should we in my area have that our shambolic Labour-run Kirklees Council will be able to deliver these mitigation environmental projects when it is actually not delivering for our local environment as it is?

My hon. Friend is completely right to raise the record—in his words, the shambolic record—of his local Labour-run council. What I can say to reassure him and other colleagues is that I have engaged with local authority leaders to explain to them exactly what this change means for them, what we expect them to do, and what they should be doing on behalf of their residents to make sure the money is spent properly to protect the rivers, seas and lakes, and get houses built.

Is it not the case that the only ones blocking the development of the houses that we need, including genuinely affordable social housing—a pitiful number were built last year; I think it was just over 7,000—are those on the Government Benches? It is the Tory Government who are the blockers of housing development to meet housing need. That is the case, is it not, Minister?

It might sound very nice on the hon. Gentleman’s Facebook clip, but if he actually looks at the facts he will find it is Conservative-run councils that have, on the whole, delivered more houses over the last few years in responding to the needs of their constituents, and Labour-run councils that are experiencing significant failures in delivering the houses that their residents need.

The Minister has lifted a blight from my constituency, but as a result of these measures we are all going to be swimming in cleaner water as well, aren’t we?

We are, and I look forward to joining my right hon. Friend in swimming in some cleaner water very soon.

The Minister rightly said that too many house building companies were going bust, but may I gently suggest that that is a consequence of the Government’s crashing the economy last year, inflation pushing up the cost of materials, and a skills shortage? The Government claim that their approach will see 100,000 permissions expedited between now and 2030, but given this context, what is that assessment actually based on, and has the Minister consulted local authorities?

Yes, we have consulted local authorities, and I make no apologies for standing up and taking action when it is needed to help small builders in particular. The diversity of the sector in this country, unlike that in other countries, is disproportionately skewed towards larger developers, and it is therefore right for us, as a Conservative Government, to back small businesses. We understand what people go through to start a business, which is why we are taking action to help them.

I welcome the Government’s balanced approach, which will improve the long-term quality of the River Stour in my constituency while allowing much-needed planning permissions for new homes to start again. Thousands of people, very sensibly, want to live in Ashford, and they want to see new homes built, not least in accordance with the local plan rather than being built opportunistically around the place, which is what the delays in permissions have led to. Can the Minister give us some indication of a timescale and when councils such as Ashford can start granting planning permissions again?

My right hon. Friend is entirely correct and I thank him for his support. We need to wait for the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to achieve Royal Assent—it must, of course, undergo parliamentary scrutiny in both Houses—but we are working apace. We have already started that engagement with local authorities and partners, Natural England and others, to ensure that they have all the operational detail that they need. What we need to see are spades in the ground as soon as possible.

It is clear from the Minister’s replies that her statutory adviser, Natural England, opposed this move, so will she please publish its advice? Instead of letting developers and water companies off the hook and pouring even more sewage into our waterways, why does she not take the advice of her right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) and reverse the Prime Minister’s disastrous decision to scrap local housing targets, which has given nimby councils carte blanche to do nothing?

What I take issue with in the right hon. Gentleman’s questions—plural—is his comment that we scrapped housing targets. We have done no such thing. We are committed to building 1 million homes during this Parliament, and we have the target of building 300,000 homes every year. That is a very important target that we stand by. What we are doing, unlike the Labour party, is taking account of local communities. What Labour would do is build all over the green belt, and I can tell the House that its own MPs are not in favour of that: they are blocking developments in their constituencies. What we have is a sensible, proportionate approach—to build the right houses in the right places.

What the negative social media debate about all this has masked is the fact that a significant amount of work is being done to create, conserve and improve wetlands around the country. The all-party parliamentary group for wetlands, which I chair, is supporting the drive by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust to create 100,000 additional hectares of wetlands in this country, and we would also like to see a dedicated domestic wetlands team in DEFRA to repeat its successes in peat productivity. Will my hon. Friend give us more information about how expert organisations such as the WWT in Slimbridge, in my patch, can apply for the £280 million to continue positive progress on environmental matters, and will she assist my efforts to get the wetlands team up and running?

I know that my hon. Friend does extremely good work on behalf of Slimbridge and other wetlands in her area. I should be delighted to meet her, and to read any of the reports produced by her APPG. I think it important to stress again that the packages to be delivered through the work of Natural England and the credit scheme must continue, and we will be boosting them because we know of the benefit that they have for my hon. Friend’s area and many others.

Does the Minister accept that the proposed investment in the Natural England nutrient mitigation scheme covers only 15% of the total mitigation requirement to 2030? Where will the additional funds required to address the shortfall come from?

I do not accept that figure, and I do not know where the hon. Lady got it. Those schemes are very much in progress at the moment, on an ongoing basis. We are working through some of the details. I should also mention that as well as the Natural England scheme we have the Government’s own scheme, administered by my Department, which we will be able to deliver throughout the country.

Does the Minister agree that there is a flaw in the way in which the Office for Environmental Protection has reached its determination in this matter? It can take into account only what is in the Bill. It cannot take into account the other measures that the Minister has mentioned, the Natural England nutrient neutrality programme and the investment in slurry management. Surely, to form a more coherent view of the environmental impact of these measures, it is necessary to look at all measures in the round, not just legislative measures.

My hon. Friend is of course extremely perceptive and he is absolutely correct. We presented an ambitious package overall, and that means we can meet head-on the challenge of delivering the much-needed planning permissions that my hon. Friend will no doubt welcome in his area—which I know needs more housing—and also protect and enhance our environment. In its recent comments, the Office for Environmental Protection has interpreted this in a very narrow fashion, and we do not necessarily agree with its assessments.

I know that the Minister has struggled previously with what constitutes retained EU legislation, but what we are talking about today is an amendment to the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. The challenge before the Minister is that this Government pledged, on the record, not once but seven times during the debate on the Bill that became the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act 2023, that they would not reduce those explicit environmental protections. Will she say now whether that pledge to match those environmental protections directly remains, or does she want to take this opportunity to correct the record and admit that the Government’s word on the environment is not worth the paper it is written on?

I think that what I am struggling with is the fact that the hon. Lady clearly did not listen to my previous comments on this matter. I have said a great many times that we do not agree that this is a regression in environmental outcomes, and we stand by that. We are the Conservative Government, and we are committed to leaving the environment in a better state than the one in which we found it. That is backed up by a strong package of action across numerous areas.

My constituency was one of the worst-affected places in the entire country, with 2,000 planning applications held up and thousands of people at risk of losing their jobs. We are talking not about large construction companies, but about everyday jobbing builders—people with families to feed. This is a great step towards getting the country moving again and solving an intractable problem.

May I ask the Minister a very simple question? If I build a small house, or put a little extension on the side of my current house, am I really damaging the watercourses to the same degree as pig farming and chicken farming? Are these well-intended laws completely missing the mark of what they were intended to do in the first place?

The simple answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that he is right. The existing legal framework that has been hindering us has had a disproportionate effect on planning permissions and house building when the main source of the pollution lies elsewhere. Overall, this package will be able to deliver house building and extensions in my hon. Friend’s constituency, help the smaller builders and, of course, protect our rivers.

In an industrial area such as Teesside, environmental standards are critical, including around water quality and our riverside. Will the new policy framework lead to increased funds for the Canal & River Trust, which has seen its budgets decimated in recent years, leading to huge cuts in its activities and the removal of every single litter bin on its land around the River Tees?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the concerns of the Canal & River Trust. I am sure that his comments will have been heard by DEFRA Ministers, but I will be happy to take those concerns back to them and ask them to provide an answer.

Following the question from the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) on mitigation, the Government’s focus seems to be on wetlands, but if we are honest it will take a long time to fully mitigate the possible additional pollution. What will be done in the interim to deal with this pollution before the wetlands become fully operational?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the fact that there is a focus on wetlands but other projects are in scope of the credit scheme. However, she has hit the nail on the head: the key point is that some of these things take a very long time to come on stream but we need to start unblocking those houses now, which is why we have taken this proportionate approach with the amendments.

Over the summer, I met members of the Bedfordshire Great Ouse Valley Environment Trust. They are concerned that our river is the fifth most polluted in England with forever toxins—the level is a shocking 10 times that considered safe—not to mention raw sewage and nitrate and phosphate contamination. Can the Minister explain to my constituents why the Government are decreasing protections for our beautiful river when what is needed is an urgent plan to clean up our dirty waterways?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman and anyone else listening to this, including his constituents, that the package we are bringing forward will protect the river and enable it to be in a cleaner state. That is backed up by our plan for water and the further announcements we are putting in place today. What is more, I know from his correspondence that his constituents also want to see affordable housing being built, and that is what this will enable.

My constituents, whether they live in urban Lancaster or in one of the rural Wyre villages, recognise the need for housing across north Lancashire, but they also recognise the ripping up of environmental protections when they see it, and they do not like that. The Minister seems to be very concerned about small house builders who are going bust, so will she take this opportunity to apologise on behalf of her Government, who crashed the economy, pushed up inflation and made materials more expensive and who have not dealt with the land banking that is really holding back house building?

What I would like to see from Members on the other side of the House is an apology for talking this country down, which they have done repeatedly. I am not sure whether the hon. Lady was able to tune in to Treasury questions recently when the Chancellor set the record straight on how we now have one of the fastest-growing rates in the G7. It is this Conservative Government who will get every industry going, including the house building industry and small and large builders. We are on the side of the builders, not the blockers.

The Minister refers to the doubling of investment in a nutrient mitigation scheme, with £200 million put into slurry management, yet 80% of phosphates in the UK’s rivers are from households and only 15% are from agriculture. Is this just another example of this Government passing the buck and blaming farmers for pollution in our rivers?

I would be happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman and explain to him what is meant by slurry management grants. We are helping farmers to build a circular economy. He will know that this is a valuable resource. Farmers will welcome this intervention because they know that it could help them to farm more sustainably. Most farmers I talk to want to work in harmony with nature. That is what we are doing. I do not know what the Liberal Democrats’ policy is, though.

This Tory Government are failing on housing and the environment pays the price. It is not an either/or. Our Welsh Labour Government are delivering on both in Wales. They have been working strategically with all stakeholders, with high-level nutrient management boards set up to tackle precisely this issue, sometimes chaired by the First Minister himself—they are always chaired by Ministers—as well as bringing through regulations to improve agricultural water quality and getting homes built as well. If the Welsh Labour Government can do both, why can’t this Government?

The Welsh Labour Government have a shocking record on house building, as they have on many issues. What is more, they are not tackling the issue at source, which is why we are bringing forward our catchment plans and our protected site strategies. A lot of the rivers that are draining from Wales are impacting negatively on constituencies in England. The only thing I agree with in the hon. Lady’s rather stilted comments is that this is not an either/or. If she had listened to what I was saying, she would know that we are doing both. We are protecting the environment, protecting our rivers and bringing forward housing.