New research shows residents of new homes produce under 1% of nutrient levels in rivers – yet 150k new homes remain blocked

27 Nov, 2023

New research shows residents of new homes produce under 1% of nutrient levels in rivers – yet 150k new homes remain blocked

Four-year political failure to tackle Natural England ban goes on while main polluters remain unaffected by policy or regulation

New research published today illustrates starkly the minimal contribution made by residents of new homes towards nutrient levels in rivers, highlighting the absurdity of the approach taken by Government quango Natural England to ban new build housing across swathes of the country. 150,000 new homes currently remain on hold amidst the country’s deepening and acute housing crisis while new investment in housing delivery plummets.

The research by the consultancy Brookbanks shows that the occupancy of new homes accounts for just 0.29% of total nitrogen emissions each year and 0.73% of total phosphorus. (nitrogen and phosphorus make up ‘nutrients’).

The calculation is based on an assessment of the nutrients generated by the occupants of all new homes built in a year, assuming an average of 230,000 new homes are built each year - the average for the last three years. It vividly underlines the seriously disproportionate effect of Natural England’s advice, which has resulted in a moratorium on new house building across 74 Local Authority areas. As the report makes clear, this embargo will secure no meaningful improvement in the condition of rivers. The quango’s decision is, however, having increasingly grave consequences for those in housing need, and threatens jobs in the house building industry and its supply chain.

The new research also puts nutrient output from residential properties in the context of agricultural activities which is responsible for around 70% of the nitrogen that finds its ways into rivers and streams. Brookbanks find that each dairy cow in affected areas produces Nitrogen discharges equivalent to 29 homes while each sheep is responsible for the same amount of Nitrogen as three family homes.

Earlier this year, it was shown that while Natural England has placed an embargo on new homes, fellow Defra quango, the Environment Agency continues to grant licences to farmers to exceed European standards for the spreading of Nitrogen on land through derogations from EU-derived law. In evidence to the House of Lords Built Environment Committee, the Deputy Chief Executive of Natural England described the oversight of agriculture imposed by the Environment Agency as ‘a less onerous regulatory regime’. Meanwhile, water companies, whose leaks and lack of investment in infrastructure leading to discharges of wastewater into rivers, make up the majority of the rest of the nutrient pollution also continue to operate without any restrictions or new requirements.

Along with the weakening of the planning system the Government has proposed, that has now seen more than 60 local planning authorities withdraw their housing plans, and the absence for the first time in decades of a Government scheme to support first time buyers, the unnecessary nutrients ban is one of the main reasons why all indicators are now showing that housing supply is plummeting.

All commentators, including the Environment Agency have long agreed, that the chief sources of nutrient-related pollution are agricultural activity and a failure to adequately treat wastewater - the latter being a result of the fact that the infrastructure operated by the water companies has been unable to cope with demand and so discharges partly or untreated effluent into our rivers. This despite developers providing water companies with more than £1bn in new assets and fees over the past three years alone. New build homes do not lead to more people, and population levels are not linked to housing supply levels – but they do mean more people are housed in decent accommodation, and with new homes being more water efficient than existing homes, reduce the amount of wastewater those occupants use.

The report shows that agriculture accounts for 70% of the nitrogen released into our rivers, with the existing housing/population contributing 30% through discharges into the sewerage system (new housing would contribute 0.29% of this figure); whilst for phosphates, agriculture is responsible for 25%, and the existing housing/population 74% (new homes would account for 0.73% of this figure).

Stewart Baseley, Executive Chairman of HBF said: “The research highlights the absurdity and pointlessness of the ongoing ban on new homes.

"Everyone accepts that new build housing is a negligible contributor to the issue yet after over four years the ban goes on.

"Preventing new development does absolutely nothing to improve the disgraceful quality of our rivers, but is exacerbating our acute housing crisis, preventing people accessing decent accommodation and costing jobs.

"After another missed opportunity in the King’s Speech, we urgently need to see politicians delivering a solution to address this damaging ban so that desperately needed homes can be built.”

Despite the clear evidence the report highlights, nearly four and a half years since Natural England used a previously unused EU rule to impose the first moratorium, the ban on development goes on. Whilst politicians on all sides say they recognise the need to find a solution a proposal remains to be agreed. One that was tabled by the Government during the Levelling up Bill was brought down in the Lords by a combination of opposition and Tory peers; whilst the King’s Speech proved to be another missed opportunity despite earlier suggestions to the contrary.

Whilst the Natural England ban remains, its counterpart the Environment Agency continues to grant license to farmers to use additional nutrient rich fertilisers, over and above the agreed limits; whilst research shows that house builders have given water companies over £1bn in the past three years alone, to ensure infrastructure is in place to facilitate new homes – something they have palpably failed to deliver.

Water companies covering some of the areas most severely affected by the nutrient neutrality restrictions are among those to have received the highest payments from developers over recent years with Severn Trent receiving almost £70m in payments and Anglian Water topping £60m in contributions from builders. See below or via the HBF website.

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