Labour blocks Michael Gove’s ‘reckless’ plan to scrap water pollution laws to boost housebuilding

Michael Gove accused Sir Keir Starmer of destroying the dream of homeownership for thousands of families

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Labour has blocked the government’s plan to rip up water pollution rules which it called “reckless” and an initiative that would “sacrifice nature”.

The opposition party opposed the Tory’s new plan in the House of Lords yesterday (Wednesday 13 September).

Environmentalists welcomed the decision which they said would protect rivers and wildlife from unnecessary pollution. But developers said it would exacerbate Britain’s housebuilding crisis, leading to 16,000 fewer homes being built each year.

The housing secretary, Michael Gove, accused the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, of destroying the dream of homeownership for thousands of families.

He said Starmer had put “short-term political calculation ahead of the long-term interests of the country” by killing off the plan despite promising to be the “party of the builders not the blockers”.

Gove added: “You cannot trust a word he says.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said the plan had been a flawed and “humiliatingly rejected” by peers.

Gove planned to scrap nutrient neutrality laws which are in place to ensure that building developments or projects do not harm local wetlands and waterways in protected areas.

Labour to vote against Tory plans that will ‘sacrifice’ UK rivers. (Photo: Getty Images) Labour to vote against Tory plans that will ‘sacrifice’ UK rivers. (Photo: Getty Images)
Labour to vote against Tory plans that will ‘sacrifice’ UK rivers. (Photo: Getty Images)

The laws that are currently in place mean that builders have to prove they will not cause polluting phosphates and nitrates to seep into nearby water.

Gove wanted to scrap these laws in order to build more houses as developers have claimed that the legislation, put in place in 2017, has prevented thousands from being built.

Ministers aimed to remove the legal requirement via an amendment in the House of Lords yesterday, which requires local authorities to ignore potential pollution risks when approving developments.

The amendment proposed that instead of forcing housebuilders to invest in local wetland sites to soak up any extra sewage pollution and mitigate damage, this legal requirement would be scrapped and taxpayer money would be used instead to increase funds for a scheme by Natural England to reduce nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates in waterways.

Before it was debated in the House of Lords, Angela Rayner and Steve Reed, the new shadow levelling up and environment secretaries, said in an article for the Times, that the Tories are being “disingenuous” about their plans and urged the public not to “fall for it”.

Rayner and Reed said the government is being “thoroughly disingenuous in suggesting that the only way we can build the homes we need in sensitive river catchment areas is by weakening environmental law”.

The pair added: “The Tories are sacrificing nature for cheap political point scoring. Labour will speed up planning to build the homes we need without trashing the environment.”

The duo confirmed that Labour will try to protect the EU-derived environmental legislation by tabling its own amendment which will “force the government to launch, complete and publish a consultation within three months to consider alternative ways to reform nutrient neutrality regulations.”

Responding to the news from Labour that it would block the amendment by the Tories, Gove said on X, formerly known as Twitter: “Today Labour claimed to be the party of home ownership yet tomorrow they plan to vote down laws that would unlock 100k homes. Sir Keir is seeking to end the dream of home ownership for thousands of families by playing politics.

“Labour are the party of the blockers not the builders.”

Rayner responded on the social media platform saying: “Yet more raw sewage from the Tory party.”

Water campaigners have criticised government’s plans to scrap water pollution laws. An underwater filmmaker told NaitonalWorld that scrapping these laws is an “act of ecocide” and “another nail in the coffin for rivers.”

Mark Barrow, from Beneath British Waters who films and campaigns against the extent of sewage in UK rivers, said: “There are not many more nails left before the lid is closed permanently. Freshwater species are already in decline despite freshwater holding some of richest biodiversity there is, and this act of lunacy will ensure that decline carries on.”

Barrow added that developers say it has prevented new houses being built because it “affects their profits” and “that’s what it comes down to.”

He said: “While ever we put money first and nature second we will ultimately lose and mark my words the loss of our freshwater aquatic world will come back to bite us in years to come.”

Charles Watson, River Action’s Founder and Chair, said nutrient neutrality laws “provide a glimmer of hope for some of our most protected rivers” and it is “absolutely absurd for the government to roll back on this.”