Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-199)



  180. You are obviously still thinking about possible procedures but can you give us any hint as to what they might be? I would not have thought this would be something that would be appropriate for the whole House or would it be something you would take to the whole House depending on the project?
  (Mr Byers) As I said, these are matters we are discussing at the moment with the Leader of the House. We are trying to identify what an appropriate procedure would be. We have not arrived at any conclusions yet, we are still thinking about it, and this will be a significant part of the consultation document when it is published.

  181. You might envisage in that some role for select committees such as this one?
  (Mr Byers) There is a range of options which I know the Leader of the House is considering.

  182. What sort of information do you expect Parliament to have access to? As you mentioned in the Heathrow inquiry, in any inquiry of that size there is always going to be a great deal of public interest—NGOs who want to give evidence maybe, protest groups who want to give evidence. Would you envisage some access for people in that position to Parliament or is that the sort of thing that might wait until we got down to the more detailed stages?
  (Mr Byers) There are a number of ways in which we should be facilitating members of the public to express a view. We need to keep up-to-date policy documents in this whole area and perhaps we do not do that well enough at the moment. There will be some wider issues that will need to be considered in relation to a particular policy and they will be debated in Parliament and I would hope, as we look at the options that are available to us, that we would be looking at ways in which we could involve not just members of the House but a wider grouping in consideration of these matters, either by receiving written evidence or oral evidence sessions. These are all things I certainly feel we need to consider, but no decisions have been taken as yet.

  183. On Terminal Five, you might not wish to answer this, would it be fair to think it was a close call because of the environmental concerns as to whether permission was given or not?
  (Mr Byers) It was a question of striking a balance between what the Inspector referred to as the "clear economic benefits" to the nation as a whole with the environmental concerns of local people in particular. In my decision letter I make it clear that it was that balance that was the key that was at the heart of the decision.

  184. Do you think that the possibility of a third runway at Heathrow is the sort of thing that might come within the new procedures that you are suggesting, or you having made the decision on Terminal Five that Heathrow is going to be expanded, that that would not come to Parliament?
  (Mr Byers) As far as the decision on the planning application for Terminal Five is concerned, I did not in the context of my decision express a view one way or the other about a third runway at Heathrow, which I guess is why you are asking me the question. I think that issue is more appropriately dealt with in the context of both the South East Review which is taking place at the moment and also the Aviation White Paper which I hope to be able to publish in the autumn of next year which will look at the demand and need for an additional runway in the South East of England, and that is something we will be looking at in that context. In terms of major infrastructure projects we will need primary legislation to introduce this change. As to whether or not we have primary legislation through the House—and who knows when it will be and who knows whether the view is that there does need to be an extra runway in the South East of England—that is a decision that has not been taken yet.

  185. I am trying to get a feel whether planning applications such as that, an extra runway, is something you would regard as big enough to fall within these new procedures in Parliament or not. I appreciate that it will depend on timing on that specific issue and whether legislation has gone through or not.
  (Mr Byers) The likelihood is it would. I am always advised that you have got to judge each particular case on its merits, but I could certainly see a situation where a proposal for an additional runway would be a major infrastructure project. They may not all but I can certainly see a situation where they would.

Mr Barker

  186. Secretary of State, you mentioned the balance you have to strike between the economic benefits and environmental impact, and such decisions are frequently on your desk. Earlier this year in the summer one of your most important decisions, landmark decisions, was the decision in respect of the Hastings bypass. I understand your primary reason there was because of the environmental impact. Clearly I have a constituency interest in that matter. I do not wish to go over old ground on that and I welcome, so far as regeneration is concerned, the lead that your Department has taken. Certainly your colleague Lord Falconer is down there today. That is very welcome indeed. What I would like to explore with you is this issue of the environmental impact because there is a very clear issue, particularly in relation to house building and indeed CO2 emissions from cars which are static, which is a very real issue in East Sussex and also anywhere else where there are similar implications. The fact of the matter is that by not building any road at all land that was appropriate for housing development remains inaccessible to planners and as a result the housing quota that has been posed in East Sussex means that if that quota is to be met that those houses will now need to go into inappropriate areas of outstanding natural beauty, flood plains or where there are not the services or they are going to have to be scattered about willy-nilly and not planned for in the way that can be seen at Poundbury, for example, where you have a very environmentally sensitive development. I wonder if you could tell the Committee to what extent housing played a part in the decision that you made and, indeed, the CO2 emissions that will come from stationary cars that will crawl around the area now without a bypass?
  (Mr Byers) On the specifics of the decision to do with Hastings and the bypass schemes, it was one of the first multi-modal studies that reported and was probably one of the most difficult, but time will tell. With everything, it is a question of balance and on looking at the detail of this, the question was whether the two bypasses would lead to the economic regeneration of Hastings town centre in particular and areas just outside Hastings, and I had to balance that with the effect of building two bypasses through areas of outstanding natural beauty. I looked very carefully at the arguments for the economic regeneration, which I have to say were not that strong. There is always a danger if you build bypasses that you take things away from the town centre that you may want to regenerate. The important thing given we have taken the decision not to go ahead with the bypasses is not to walk away from the regeneration needs of the area and we have to move in and be very positive. As you say, Lord Falconer is visiting Hastings today looking at a regeneration package for the area that will really work. I know the decision took people by surprise because people had assumed we would give the go-ahead to the bypasses but, on balance, I thought it was so detrimental to the environment that it should not go ahead. You only build a road once and you destroy an area of outstanding natural beauty once by building that road, and the judgment we took was that the benefits were not that great and therefore it was the wrong decision to take. In terms of house building and the consequences so far as residential developments are concerned, it was not a major factor in the decision but I think you are right to point that out and within the context of how we look at these multi-modal studies we do look not just at economic regeneration but we do look at other developments like, for example, the provision of residential accommodation and that is taken into account. In this context it was not a major factor in arriving at the decision in relation to the two bypasses.

  187. Would you not agree therefore, given that the impact of the bypass is not only directly on the regeneration of Hastings, and that is being addressed, but also you should concern yourself with the housing quota for that part of the world because there is a knock-on effect that by disallowing access to an area behind Bexhill, houses are going to be pushed into rural areas where they are inappropriate?
  (Mr Byers) I think these are all areas which can be taken into account in developing planning policy for those particular areas, and I am certainly more than happy, in the light of the comments which have been made by Mr Barker, to make sure within the Department when we look at these matters we can take them into account.

Mr Simmonds

  188. Now the responsibility for the sponsorship of the RDAs has moved to the DTI, do you think the delivery of regional regeneration policy will be made more difficult?
  (Mr Byers) It should not be. Ironically, when I was Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, I was a great advocate for RDAs to move over to the DTI, and as they moved over I moved across to this Department.


  189. That is politics!
  (Mr Byers) That is the nature of the job, you are absolutely right. The important point is this, that the role of RDAs has actually shifted, and rightly so, to be more concerned about enterprise and innovation, whereas regeneration, which is still the responsibility of my Department, is more focused on infrastructural developments. There is a clear link between the two but there was a danger I think that the RDAs became far too focused about land use and land development and they ignored the need to encourage enterprise and innovation. Given that is where they are now positioned, then the Department of Trade & Industry is their rightful home. It does not stop my Department though being involved in regeneration and renewal, almost laying the foundations upon which you can then build on enterprise and innovation. I do not think there is a problem between the two.

  190. Presumably there are meetings between the two Departments to ensure what you have explained actually happens in practice?
  (Mr Byers) Yes, many.
  (Dr Whitehead) Could I add that there is very much an integrated process between the development of regional planning guidance, the role of the RDAs in commenting on that before it is brought to fruition, the role of DEFRA in consulting and looking at that, and therefore integrating that planning guidance before it finally is decided and signed off by the Secretary of State. So that close link in the process, it seems to me, remains regardless of, as it were, where the RDAs are sited as far as their parent department is concerned.

  191. How are you getting on with the White Paper on Regional Governance? Bearing in mind the comments of Lord Falconer only a few days ago, what implication will that have for the existing shire county councils, for their powers or indeed for their existence at all in the future?
  (Mr Byers) It should not really make any difference at all in the sense that the issue will be one for determination by the people living within a particular region. The White Paper will come out in due course and it is being worked on by the Deputy Prime Minister and myself at the moment, and some decisions still have to be taken, but I can reassure the hon gentleman that it is not the intention of the White Paper to go for the abolition of the county councils. It will be down to local people to decide if they want to embrace elected regional assemblies. I think in many parts of the country we all know that is something which probably is not going to be an option which people want to pursue.

  192. In putting this White Paper together, is sustainable development of the environment a golden thread which is running through the discussions which are taking place?
  (Mr Byers) We are certainly, in the context of looking at the functions and responsibilities of an elected regional tier, looking very closely at the whole environmental sustainable development agenda, yes.

  193. Is the suggestion that if people do want to vote for elected regional assemblies, through regional referenda, that that will automatically imply that county councils go, or is the suggestion they will be able to retain multiple tiers? Is it a binary choice in that sense or not?
  (Mr Byers) What our manifesto said at the general election was that we would expect the elected regional government to be established where there is predominantly unitary authorities, and as you will be aware unitary could be the county level. But those are matters which will need to be considered by local people and they will have the final say.

  194. From what you are saying, there will be no abolition of any county council without a vote?
  (Mr Byers) That is true.

Mr Barker

  195. For clarity, that is the vote of the people concerned? For example, in the south east obviously the population of London would swamp East Sussex, so if people outside East Sussex voted for regional government but people in East Sussex wanted to keep East Sussex County Council, what would be the outcome there?
  (Mr Byers) London would not be part of that vote because—

  196. All right then, Greater London going up to Berkshire.
  (Mr Byers) I have to say in all honesty the demand for regional government in the south east of England has passed me by, so I do not think it is going to be much of an issue, quite frankly!

  Mr Barker: I am relieved to hear that!


  197. Turning to the Spending Review for 2002, Michael Meacher when he came to this Committee said he had been dissatisfied with the extent to which sustainable development and the environment had been taken account of in the last annual review. How are you improving that this time?
  (Mr Byers) I think it has been helpful that the Treasury has indicated they want sustainable development to be at the heart of the spending review, and they have made that very clear. Certainly, as you will know, Chairman, from your days in Government, when you get a strong hint from the Treasury that might be a door which is half ajar and it might be helpful in terms of getting a good settlement, it is one you push on very hard. The Treasury have indicated that. I am aware of the concerns last time round and I think I gave evidence to this Committee with my old responsibilities and I accepted, as Michael Meacher has done, that not enough attention was paid to it, and I think we have reflected on that and learnt the lessons.

  198. Anything in particular you can instance as a way you have improved on that?
  (Mr Byers) In my own view in terms of areas we will be approaching the Treasury on, obviously housing is an area where we will be looking very closely at sustainable development being included.

  199. Housing targets, you mean?
  (Mr Byers) Housing targets. There are some specific issues in relation to transport where we will want to talk to the Treasury about how we can build more sustainable development ideas into what we are putting forward.
  (Dr Whitehead) Would it be helpful, Chairman, if I indicated the process by which the Department would be looking at the bids for SR2002?

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