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Plans by the UK government to dilute rules on water pollution in order to enable more housebuilding were defeated in the House of Lords on Wednesday night in a major setback for Rishi Sunak’s administration.
The UK prime minister had proposed to remove EU-era “nutrient neutrality rules”, complaining that they were blocking the construction of up to 100,000 new homes by the end of the decade.
But the government was defeated by 203 votes to 156 over the issue in the upper house. Three Conservative peers — including Lord Deben, an ex-cabinet minister and former chair of the climate change committee — voted against the government alongside various opposition peers.
Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour party, said the “flawed plan” had been “humiliatingly rejected” by the upper house of Parliament.
But Michael Gove, levelling-up secretary, said: “Sir Keir Starmer [Labour leader] is attempting to end the dream of home ownership for thousands of families and young people with his political game-playing.”
More than 60 local authorities have been ordered to restrict housebuilding in certain areas by Natural England, a government agency. The advice, based on a previous EU directive, was designed to prevent the pollution of rivers by substances including phosphates and nitrates.
But after complaints from the housebuilding industry, ministers had sought to scrap those rules through an amendment to the levelling-up and regeneration bill currently going through parliament. The government promised to spend hundreds of million pounds on mitigation measures such as creating wetlands, planting woodlands and giving farmers grants to reduce run-off into rivers.
However the plan prompted anger from environmental groups, which warned that it would worsen water pollution — despite the government’s insistence that housebuilders are responsible for less than 1 per cent of nutrients entering rivers and lakes.
Baroness Jenny Jones, a Green party peer, told the chamber: “We were told that there would be no lowering of environmental standards in post-Brexit legislation and there manifestly has been . . . even I would never have believed that the government could introduce such an act of environmental vandalism.”
By voting against the amendment, peers have ensured that it cannot be reintroduced in the House of Commons in the same bill given the legislation has almost reached the end of its passage through parliament.
However, ministers could potentially draw up new laws in the King’s Speech in the autumn to revive the plan. One aide said that ministers would now consider their next steps.
The Labour party had previously hinted that it could support the government’s proposals. But on Tuesday it issued its own amendment and said it would vote against ministers’ plans.
The opposition claimed it had an alternative plan under which developers could be allowed to start building homes before nutrient neutrality plans were put in place — and then be forced to introduce measures to counter any environmental harm before the homes were occupied.
Sunak, speaking earlier on Wednesday at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, accused Starmer — who has previously promised to be pro-development — of “flip-flopping” over the issue.
“It is typical of the principles-free, conviction-free leadership that he has, to flip-flop and go from a builder to a blocker,” he said.
But the RSPB wildlife charity said: “We are delighted to see politicians of all parties in the House of Lords acting for nature and ensuring our rivers and estuaries are protected by voting against the government’s proposals to scrap nutrient neutrality rules.”