Why is the Government washing its hands of responsibility when it comes to water pollution? - Jayne Dowle
Meanwhile the government seemingly washes its hands of the odious problem, despite promising a £2.2bn Plan for Water earlier this year.
The BBC is reporting that despite all that talk about ‘staycations’, visitor numbers to Devon and Cornwall have dropped by 20 per cent in the summer of 2023. Sewage in the sea is being held up – not literally, one hopes – as a major reason behind this worrying decline.
In our own region too, we’ve had a summer of sewage alerts. Swimmers at popular beaches including Scarborough, Robin Hood’s Bay, Whitby and Bridlington, have been warned to stay out of the sea, as ageing sewers impacted by heavy rainfall have struggled to cope with overflows.
Now we hear that EU rules on allowing nutrients – elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus which support the formation of algae, turning water green, causing odours and even releasing toxins – in rivers are to be relaxed, as they are being held responsible for hold-ups in the progress of new homes being built.
The government says current EU-derived regulations have required Natural England to issue guidance to 62 local authority areas that any new development must be ‘nutrient neutral’, and this has blocked or delayed plans.
The relaxation might be pleasing the housebuilders, but it’s fomenting anger among environmentalists, who say it will further add to water pollution.
The answer, argues Mr Gove, is to pump millions into offsetting schemes which will mitigate increased levels of pollution in rivers caused by housebuilding, including measures such as building wetlands to help dissipate pollution. There is a logic there, but surely a faulty one.
Cast your mind back and you may remember Michael Gove, as environment secretary, promising to deliver a ‘green Brexit’. When we left Europe, his argument went, we in the UK would be allowed to make our own rules on protecting our own environment.
Now he’s shifted Cabinet position to become levelling up and housing secretary, he seems to have suffered if not a bout of amnesia, then an about-turn.
In a bid – he argues – to support the building of much-needed new homes, he’s ripped up these ‘nutrient neutrality’ rules designed to protect sensitive river environments.Without getting too technical, the row over river nutrients has come about because after weeks of going through parliament, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill has been landed with a late clause governing the impact of housebuilding on natural habitats.
This clause seeks to overturn rules introduced to stop new homes adding to the nutrient pollution officially already blighting rivers in 27 catchments across the country.
These catchments include Hornsea Mere Special Protection Area in the East Riding, which has been found to have dangerously-high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.
As we know in our region, water pollution is now a major political issue in coastal areas.
Yet, Mr Gove, backed by Environment Secretary Therese Coffey, covers himself by arguing that the government is offering money to offset the pollution from new homes. However, throwing money at the issue is not the point.
Mr Gove says that relaxing river pollution rules will bring a “multi-million-pound boost” to the economy by “unlocking” 100,000 homes.
But the impact could be much smaller, and certainly not immediate. It’s reported that according to the government’s own figures, currently just eight per cent of new homes are blocked by nutrient neutrality rules. The 100,000 figure amounts to just 16,500 homes a year from the present financial year to 2028-29.
No-one would disagree that we need more homes in the UK. But despoiling our waterways and paying scant disregard to the environment is a blunt instrument.
Instead of paying lip service to big lobbying housebuilders and making it easier for them to profit, Mr Gove might like to exercise his formidable mind towards devising innovative ways to bring back to life some of the estimated one million homes standing empty in England, calculated by the campaign group Action on Empty Homes in February this year.
He might also speak with his colleagues in education and push for far more investment in training up the next generations of bricklayers, plumbers, plasterers and electricians we need to build houses.