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As many as 40,000 new homes are being delayed because developers say they are struggling to meet UK environmental regulations, posing a threat to government targets on addressing housing shortages.
Developers have been barred from moving ahead on a number of building sites in England because of fears that construction will add to the level of nitrates and phosphates in waterways.
At high concentrations, these nutrients cause excess algae to grow, depleting oxygen in the water and stifling other aquatic life. Their levels are already above EU recommendations in many UK rivers because of farming and development.
“Somewhere between 30,000-40,000 homes are delayed in one way or another,” said David O’Leary, policy director at the Home Builders Federation. A further 20,000 homes are also likely to be affected and the issue could yet become more widespread, he said.
Getting guidance from the government has been challenging, in part because the issue falls between the housing and environment departments, he added.
After the Solent — the stretch of water between southern England and the Isle of Wight — was found to contain high levels of nitrates in 2019, councils in Hampshire were told by Natural England, a government body, to block development that was not nitrate neutral.
Since then, the problem has spread and 20 councils have been advised by Natural England to refuse developments that are not phosphate and nitrate neutral, according to the HBF.
There are delays of 12-24 months on some sites because developers are trying to source extra land adjacent to absorb nutrient run-off, according to James Thomson, chief executive of housebuilder Gleeson Homes. The alternative, he said, was to cut the number of homes built on a site by as much as 50 per cent.
Rules to protect habitats when houses are being built have existed for decades, but the nitrates and phosphates problem highlights the tension between two central planks of the government’s agenda: a pledge to “build, build, build” and ambitious environmental targets.
Developers are being asked to comply with increasingly tough rules with the ultimate aim of building with “net zero” carbon emissions.
Such measures are essential if the UK, which is hosting the COP26 international climate summit in November, is to meet its emissions targets. But this will mean additional costs for builders.
According to the HBF, the cost of offsetting the impact of phosphates associated with new development is close to £5,000 per home.
The costs associated with meeting new energy efficiency targets for homes by 2030 are likely to match or exceed that, developers estimate.
Those additional costs could make building in areas with low house prices less viable, according to two major housebuilders, undermining the government’s promise to build more and “level up” less well-off parts of England.
“We urge local authorities to continue to work with Natural England to ensure development proposals do not adversely affect the environment and protected areas, and to take measures which mitigate damage and improve the quality of our rivers for people and nature,” said Mike Burke, head of sustainable development at Natural England.
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