Tens of thousands of new homes are in danger of being delayed or demolished due to river pollution which could cost the economy £ 16 billion.
Experts say more phosphate, which is found in animal and human waste, is entering rivers and affecting water quality.
Stricter regulations on phosphate river pollution targets have been introduced, but this could affect 100,000 newly built homes in England and Wales.
The developers want governments to act urgently to find a solution.
Pollution is a problem caused in part by us and our demand for cheap food.
That request has prompted an industry that is threatening to overwhelm our environment, a BBC investigation has uncovered.
Activists have said more needs to be done to save UK rivers before it’s too late.
Construction of more than 5,000 new homes has been hit in Wales due to stricter river phosphate pollution targets that were adopted in 2020. This could cost the economy more than £ 700 million.
“Delays could cost £ 16 billion”
The Home Builders’ Federation (HBF) contacted planning authorities and developers and calculated that 100,000 homes in 74 areas in England are also affected by the restrictions on phosphates in construction.
The HBF estimates the impact could be a £ 16 billion loss in economic activity in England and Wales.
This figure is calculated from an industry standard model, verified by the BBC, which predicts the financial footprint of new home buyers, including spending in the local economy and taxes.
“We have moratoriums imposed by the government agency on building homes in large areas of the country for nutrient neutrality, even though home building has a minor contribution to the problem,” said Stewart Baseley, executive chair of the HBF.
“Housing construction offers growth and it is critical that the government re-evaluate the impact of these costs and moratoriums and ensure that the industry is sufficiently supported so that it can provide desperately needed new homes and social and economic benefits. Associates.
“It is encouraging that after nearly three years of appeals from home builders, the government appears to be trying to find solutions, but we need urgent action that matches the scale and urgency of the matter.”
Natural England, a UK government agency, said phosphate pollution is causing “severe damage” to rivers and wetlands – and the species that live in them – and has made £ 100,000 available for each affected catchment area. .
“These are also the same habitats we need to protect ourselves from the impacts of the climate crisis such as drought,” said Melanie Hughes of Natural England.
“Their protection and enhancement is the basis of our economy and our well-being.
“Nutrient neutrality is a way to make sure new homes don’t add to the problem by ensuring developers can take action to reduce pollution, for example by creating new wetlands.
“Together with the government, Natural England is working closely with local authorities, developers and planning authorities to create those solutions so that much-needed development can take place. This is happening now.”
Wales Prime Minister Mark Drakeford held a summit with representatives of farmers and water companies to discuss the impact of phosphate pollution on home construction in the summer.
High levels of phosphate and other nutrients in rivers can lead to the proliferation of algae and, ultimately, the loss of many species that make rivers their home, including fish, birds, invertebrates and plants vital to the river ecosystem.
BBC Wales Investigates explored the problem on the River Wye which straddles the England-Wales border.
It is one of the most ecologically diverse waterways in the UK and is home to wildlife such as salmon, otters and kingfishers.
The warning ecosystem will “collapse”
The River Wye catchment area is not meeting the goals of the Joint Committee on Nature Conservation and Natural Resources of Wales (NRW) estimate that nearly three quarters of the phosphates entering the river come from rural land use, such as agriculture.
“We can’t wait any longer,” said Gail Davies-Walsh of the Afonydd Cymru charity, which represents river trusts in Wales.
“Simply, if it continues as it is now, that ecosystem will collapse.
“It’s saveable, but it’s going to take a tremendous amount of work together and it will require all of those industries to play their part in this and what we’re seeing at the moment is actually quite a lot of delays in what happens.”
Is the pollution due to intensive agriculture?
Activists believe that intensive poultry farming is responsible.
Data collected from the rural Wales protection campaign found that, since 2008, Powys, which covers a large area of the Wye, has been granted planning permits to more than 300 intensive poultry farms and farm extensions.
But water quality monitoring was unable to demonstrate a direct link between phosphates in the river and chicken farms.
“Agriculture is part of the problem,” National Farming Union President Cymru Aled Jones told BBC Wales Investigates.
“It’s a very complex issue. There are so many other factors that contribute to the lack of water in these rivers.
“We have to go with the evidence. And when that evidence is cleared up, clearly, then we’ll respond.”
Water monitoring across the UK is limited, but a team from Lancaster University has modeled the amount of manure generated in the Wye catchment area.
They found that 7,500 tons of phosphorus are generated in the River Wye catchment area each year from animal manure.
Crops in that area can only absorb about 4,500 tons of that manure, leaving a surplus.
“Basically, if you have a surplus, you have too much phosphorus in your environment, you are likely to have worse water quality,” said Dr Shane Rothwell of Lancaster University.
Can an artificial wetland stop the pollution of rivers?
Near the Wye in Herefordshire, construction has begun on the UK’s first wetlands funded by developers buying what are described as “phosphate credits”.
These measures aim to stop putting more nutrients, such as phosphate, into rivers, similar to carbon offsetting.
Wetlands in the village of Luston, near Leominster, should prevent 200kg of phosphate from going into the river every year.
Developer Merry Albright has 52 house constructions suspended due to phosphate restrictions, but is benefiting from the wetlands program.
“Developers don’t mind doing more for biodiversity”
He said: “The new housing has not caused this problem and yet we are blamed and we are also being asked to pay for a solution that will not really solve the bigger problem.
“I’m happy to do the best for the environment, so I’m not looking for someone to do away with the bureaucracy, but I’d like people to focus on what caused this and what needs to be done to fix it.”
In England, Defra said it has tripled its workforce over the past two years and has increased farm inspections from 300 to 1,700 per year. They added that they plan to expand to 4,000 inspections per year.
In Wales, it is NRW’s job to enforce water quality regulations. They are negotiating with the Welsh government to get extra funding to control the new pollution rules.
“It is vital to have people on the ground to deliver,” said NRW’s Siân Williams.
“That is why we are not only looking into externally funded programs that are temporary, but we are also looking into our core funding with the Welsh government.”
Welsh Minister of Rural Affairs Lesley Griffiths said the Welsh government has already worked towards “quick gains” and long-term solutions.
“Of course, I’m part of the solution, just like other people are,” he said. “We must all take responsibility for each of us”.
Wales investigates: what is killing our rivers, is underway BBC iPlayer and BBC One Wales at 8.30pm on Mondays.