Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Ian Stewart: I accept the hon. Gentleman's comments, and that was the thrust of the intervention that I sought to make. Does he accept, however, that there is a wide difference of opinion on the matter? It is highlighted by the fact that, when I intervened to ask whether a sensible approach could be taken and to say that the Government may in some circumstances have to implement reasonable and appropriate regulation, which I think the hon. Gentleman accepted, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said from a sedentary position that there are no such

30 Jan 2004 : Column 457

circumstances. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that, yes, sometimes, as long as the Government meet the requirements set out, it may be that we have to regulate?

Mr. Hammond: My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), as he always has and as he always will, speaks for himself and has his own views on all of these subjects. He will correct me if I am guessing wrongly, but I suspect that he may sometimes be tempted to state his case in the most extreme terms precisely because of the barrage, the torrent, of regulation that we have been faced with over the past few years from the Government—4,000 regulations a year.

Of course, I and my party accept what the hon. Gentleman says: there will be occasions when it is right to regulate. Some regulations are beneficial and necessary. No legislator, spending their day working in a community that is built on legislation and regulation, could feel that there was never an occasion when it was right to regulate. It is a matter of balance and of taking a rounded view of all the issues.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talks about a barrage of regulations, but forgets that the number of statutory instruments has not really changed since the time of the Conservative Government. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about regulation, can he explain why very few Conservative Members turn up in the Regulatory Reform Committee?

Mr. Hammond: I can neither explain that, nor can I explain why so few Labour Members have turned up to such an important debate as this, if its consequences are as far-reaching as hon. Members have suggested.

The Bill would impose substantial costs on home owners and home buyers, at a time when one of the Government's key agenda issues is, rightly, affordability of housing. The hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) eloquently made the case that everybody has a right to expect that we are critically concerned in this place with ensuring that affordable, decent housing is available for our constituents. If the Bill as presented to the House this morning is enacted in its entirety, it would move that goal of affordability still further away in the interests of achieving something called "sustainability", which is exactly the point that I want to impress upon the House this morning. If a legislative measure focuses narrowly on achieving a positive outcome, and declines to look at the unintended negative consequences of pursuing that agenda, on all sorts of worthy social and environmental agendas, we will find that we have a Bill that does not makes sense.

Given that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove is the author of a pamphlet entitled "Local Democracy Guaranteed", I was disappointed to hear nothing from him about the Bill's approach of using the building regulations, a highly centralised, one-size-fits-all approach to regulation, with very little local discretion in them. When challenged by the hon. Member for Eccles, the hon. Gentleman conceded that he understood the value of local discretion and local authorities' ability to deal with the specific issues and

30 Jan 2004 : Column 458

concerns in their communities. If sustainability is to be a workable agenda, it surely must be a local agenda. It is almost a contradiction in terms to conceive of sustainability being something that is imposed by a remote national Government on local communities. I should have liked to have seen more of an acknowledgement in the Bill of the role that local communities and local authorities could play in considering how to tailor the appropriate parts of that agenda to the needs and different imperatives and priorities of their areas.

Mr. Stunell: I hesitate to take more of the House's time, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I do not know whether he has studied how building regulations now apply, but they are not one size fits all; they set some overall standards and it is left to the discretion of building designers how those standards are met. That useful change was introduced about 20 years ago, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not had an opportunity to catch up with it.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The building regulations define the end result and leave it to the building designer to choose the method, but they are a national set of standards and they appear to me to leave relatively little discretion for tailoring things to local needs.

The Bill's objective is, I think, acknowledged. We want to see more sustainable buildings over time. But that is just one policy objective among many and there are many different ways in which to approach that. The hon. Gentleman has chosen the regulatory approach—a man with a clipboard ticking boxes. Although that does not invalidate the objectives that he is pursuing, it is a flawed delivery mechanism, and it will make resistance to the Bill all the stronger. In the case of some parts of the Bill, it undermines the credibility of the proposals altogether, as I shall seek to illustrate.

I could not help but feel that the Bill does not quite live up to its billing. The hon. Gentleman might want to disown some of the remarks that the e-politics website attributes to his office. It says that the hon. Gentleman's office claims that the legislation will

I am not clear how that is covered by the Bill. It also says:

I have not noticed a provision in the Bill dealing with the powers of the police to impose the measure on home owners. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will clarify that.

The hon. Gentleman's office is also reported as saying that the Bill will cut greenhouse gas emissions from homes, offices and other buildings, saving energy and slashing heating bills. Of course, that is right. As we improve standards of insulation in homes, heating bills will undoubtedly be cut. In isolation, that must be a good thing, but what about the cost of achieving that?

Much is made in the hon. Gentleman's promotional material and in the WWF's 1 million sustainable homes initiative, which he mentioned again this morning, of the gap between the "quality" of homes in the United

30 Jan 2004 : Column 459

Kingdom on one hand and in Scandinavia and northern Europe on the other. The WWF uses on its website the examples of Denmark and Germany. "Quality" probably refers to efficiency in the use of energy and in insulation standards. If so, what the hon. Gentleman and the WWF say is undoubtedly correct. The hermetic seal of the average new home in the UK is considerably less effective than that of one built in Germany or Denmark. However, has the hon. Gentleman ever looked at the cost of achieving parity?

The Danish Agency for Trade and Industry has produced a report—helpfully in English; wonderful people, the Danes—which the hon. Gentleman might want to look at. It compares Danish construction costs with those of various other European Union countries. The House will forgive me if I quote the figures in Danish krone per square metre rather than pounds per square foot, which might be more familiar to many of us.

The cost in 1999—the last year for which data are available—of constructing a typical single family house in Denmark was 8,600 krone per square metre. The cost of a similar single family house in the UK in the same year was £4,183 krone. That represents a Danish construction cost for domestic dwellings that is 106 per cent. higher than the comparable UK figure.

Brian White: The hon. Gentleman is quoting figures for new construction, but it is cheaper to install energy-efficiency measures in new homes than it is retrospectively to fit them in existing homes. Therefore, the extra investment costs are surely less than those down the line, which would run to hundreds more krone.

Mr. Hammond: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but he has not addressed the critical point. At a time when the Government are facing a housing crisis and addressing—the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is certainly doing so—much of their energy to trying to deal with the housing affordability problem across a large part of the country, are we seriously contemplating doubling the construction costs of new dwellings? I suggest that, although that might move us forward on one agenda, it will move us sharply backwards on the Government's priority agenda of achieving affordability.

Mr. Dismore: I want to be sure that we are comparing like with like. I know, for example, that tax rates in Denmark are exorbitant. I think that I am right in saying that normal income tax is of the order of 65 per cent., which puts our own rates into context. I think that I am also right that various purchase taxes—whether VAT or otherwise—are extremely high compared with ours. Are the hon. Gentleman's figures adjusted to the differential tax rates?

Next Section

IndexHome Page