The Polluter Pays Principle

HM Government appears to adopt the "Polluter Pays Principle" in theory, albeit with lots of caveats, which the current Conservative government has no intention of following in practice. An announcement was expected yesterday (29/8/23) to scrap the requirement for housebuilders and developers to not add to the nutrient pollution currently killing our rivers and waterways. As citizen scientists working hard to understand and prevent further degradation of the River Wye, this is a big kick in the teeth.

Photo 1: Pollution on Newton Brook, Hereford

It is also a double whammy for 'Joe Public' (and Josephine Public) who will not only get to see rivers and waterways turned into open sewers but will also be asked to pay to clean up all the pollution created by the house builders and developers while they walk away with all the profits. Why? Because the current government has seen fit to use £280 million of taxpayers' money to ameliorate the extra pollution caused by newly built homes located close to rivers where nutrient levels are already too high.

What makes this wanton destruction even more senseless is the government's claim that, by relaxing these rules, up to 100,000 extra homes could be built by 2030; i.e. just 13,000 per year out of an annual target of 300,000 new homes.

The current legislation, inherited from the European Union, applied only to environmentally sensitive areas near rivers and waterways. It was also not particularly onerous for new housing developments since it only asked the builders/developers to not make things any worse than they already were. So, I ask the question, why do the house builders and developers not pay to clean up their own mess as required by the polluter pays principle?

It cannot be because the builders and developers are too poor. The average profit margin per new house is 130% (ranging from 70% to 200% depending on location). Including land costs, a house builder can expect a profit margin of 12-30%. If the average price for a new house is just under £400,000, then the housebuilders' profit is between £48,000 and £120,000 per house. At a building rate of 200,000 new houses per year, they would have to give up just £1400 profit on each house built to cover the £280,000,000 of taxpayers' money this current government has so generously donated to the industry.

One thing we can definitely be sure of is that the generosity of the Conservative Party towards house builders and developers has nothing to do with party political donations. I feel certain that the £60 million donated to the Conservative Party over a 10-year period by property developers would, in no way, influence the decisions of Tory ministers; not even if those donations made up 20% of all donations to the Conservative Party. [note: I have low confidence in the ability of other major political parties to improve on the dismal showing of our present government]

Rather than give the house builders/developers free taxpayers' money, why not ask them to 'do no harm' to the environment instead. They successfully lobbied the previous Tory administration (Cameron/Osbourne) in 2015 to get rid of the UK's carbon zero building policy. That was under the pretense of protecting taxpayers. History has shown the fallacy of that claim as householder energy bills rose exponentially after Russia invaded Ukraine and the current Government spent £40 billion protecting households and businesses from spiralling energy costs. How much better that money could have been spent insulating poor UK housing stock and/or increasing the capacity of renewable energy.


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