(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak suffered a major setback in his plan to rip up environmental rules to boost housebuilding, after the House of Lords voted against the government following a backlash from green groups.
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The Conservative administration had pledged to relax “nutrient neutrality” laws inherited from the European Union that ban builders — or require them to mitigate impact — from developing in areas where water is in a poor condition. It would unblock the construction of 100,000 new homes by 2030, it said.
Read More: Squeezed on Housing, Sunak’s Tories Take Aim at EU-Era Water Law
But its strategy to try to amend its own Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to force through the change backfired Wednesday when peers voted against it by 192 to 161. Under parliamentary rules, the government cannot try to overturn the decision even in the lower House of Commons — meaning the policy is delayed indefinitely. One option would be to legislate in the new session of Parliament starting Nov. 7.
On the face of it, the move is a blow to Sunak, who is under pressure to boost housebuilding rates that are failing to keep up with growing demand ahead of a general election expected in 2024. Sunak accused Labour Party leader Keir Starmer of “flip-flopping from being a builder to a blocker” after the opposition party said it would vote down the measure in the Lords.
Yet the government’s strategy — to try to amend legislation just as the current Parliament session is running out of time — has led to questions about what ministers hoped to achieve. By drawing out Labour, the Tories are likely to try to paint the opposition party as eco warriors intent on blocking new houses.
Starmer’s spokesman told reporters the government’s plans were “rushed and flawed” and Labour had “serious concerns about the way in which the changes the Tories are proposing will harm our waterways and ecosystems.”
Labour instead called on the government to publish a consultation within three months to consider alternative ways to reform the water pollution regulations.
Despite the pressure on housing supply, it’s far from a given that voters will side with Sunak’s party against Labour on the issue. When Bloomberg first reported on the government’s plan to rip up the pollution rules, the move was backed by developers but drew warnings from green groups that watering down the rules would be disproportionate with the number of houses freed up.
The Conservatives are under fire after backing away from a manifesto pledge to build 300,000 homes a year. At the same time, Sunak’s party faces criticism over sewage run-offs into the sea and rivers by private water companies, making any move to ease environmental regulations politically sensitive.
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