A heated battle over nutrient neutrality awaits the new shadow environment secretary. Steve Reed, formerly shadow justice secretary and lord chancellor, took up the brief from his predecessor, Jim McMahon, on Monday, one of many reallocations in Keir Starmer’s wide-reaching reshuffle.
The MP for Croydon North began his career in politics as a councillor in Lambeth, eventually rising up the ranks to become the council’s leader. He joined the Commons in 2012, and since then has hardly spoken about the environment in his 252 spoken contributions in the chamber.
Still, Reed’s background in local government and 18 months’ experience gained as shadow communities secretary between 2020-2021 might give him a head start in defining the party’s stance on nutrient neutrality. He must now partner with the new shadow levelling-up minister and the party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, to formulate Labour’s response.
Under guidance set out by Natural England, projects in areas affected by nutrient pollution may only be approved by local planning authorities if they will not increase levels of pollution in the project’s catchment area.
The government announced last week that it would amend the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill to get rid of the regulations – a measure that it says will lead to the construction of over 100,000 more houses. According to Elliot Chapman-Jones, head of public affairs at the Wildlife Trusts, this will be a “key test for Labour”.
Labour’s position on nutrient neutrality is vague – the party has come out neither explicitly for nor against the government’s plans. Key environmental experts suggest that with two new shadow cabinet members leading on this brief, now is the perfect time for that to change.
Chris Venables, deputy director of politics at the Green Alliance think tank, explains that Labour should start by establishing that tackling water pollution and accelerating house-building are not mutually exclusive.
“If you’re really serious about housing policy, there’s a lot you can do instead of [scrapping nutrient neutrality],” says Venables. “That’s the plan which I think we’re all waiting for.”
Others in the sector have called for the party to take an explicit stance against the scrapping of nutrient neutrality. At the Wildlife Trusts, Chapman-Jones says: “Labour have so far been strong on water pollution issues.” He points to Reed’s predecessor, McMahon, who was “rightly campaigning against the state of our rivers”.
“They need to back that up and keep that going by totally rejecting this amendment,” he adds.
Labour’s environmental plans have also proved elusive. Chapman-Jones points out that the party has yet to make a “really compelling case for nature to the electorate”. Chris Hammond, the chief executive of the UK100 network agrees: “The ecological crisis exacerbates the climate crisis, which means it’s important that we have strong, robust targets on clean air, water quality and biodiversity.”
“Although it may not seem like natural Labour territory, [conserving the environment] has the potential to really focus the delivery of a number of the party’s missions,” says Hammond. He points to the impact of issues such as clean air and sustainable food production on economic growth, health and well-being. “There is strong value in the work that can be done through nature.”