Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Natural Environment Research Council

  The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence.

  NERC is one of the UK's seven Research Councils. It funds and carries out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. NERC trains the next generation of independent environmental scientists. Its priority research areas are: Earth's life-support systems, climate change, and sustainable economies.

  NERC's research centres are: the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the British Geological Survey (BGS), the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL).

  NERC's comments draw on inputs from BGS, CEH and Swindon-Office staff.

  The British Geological Survey's Economic Minerals and Geochemical Baseline Programme (EMGB) focuses on delivering information, expertise, advice and research on solid minerals (metallic, industrial, construction, coal) and geochemical baseline surveys (for environmental and resource assessment end-uses). These various activities are undertaken on local, regional, and national scales within the UK and throughout the world. EMGB supports, develops and promotes best-practice sustainable development principles within the mineral development and environmental fields. BGS is thus in a particularly good position to comment on the issue of whether resources can be used and waste produced without harm to the environment.

  CEH conducts environmental research under a wide range of programmes; one of its newest is the Sustainable Economies Programme, which covers land-use, energy, and hazards and risks of several kinds.


  The Committee will be aware of the April 2004 DEFRA publication "Study into the Environmental Impacts of Increasing the Supply of Housing in the UK" (Entec/Hodkinson/eftec Final report), which covers many of the issues raised by the Environmental Audit Committee.

  We are concerned that environmental factors should not be seen only as obstacles to development. We need to recognise the value of land that has a tendency to flood, is unstable or whose vegetation can contribute to carbon sequestration, for example. Ideally, full life-cycle analyses incorporating all the externalities associated with housing development should be conducted, but this would be difficult for the several hundred thousand new houses planned. It is therefore particularly necessary that relevant datasets of environmental information are maintained and consulted, and that the expertise of organisations such as the NERC Research Centres is sought when developments are planned or decisions made about land allocation.


1.  Are the conclusions of the Barker Review compatible with the general principles of sustainable development and the Government's own sustainable development objectives?

  The Barker Review appears to base its recommendations regarding how much more housing is needed and where it is needed largely on house-price increases. It is possible that the resulting decisions regarding location could conflict with advice based on predictions of climate change and water security, for example.

2.  In view of the Barker Review is there are need for an overarching national strategy to ensure that the environment is at the heart of any building programme?

  Yes, for at least two reasons. First, the recommendations of the Barker Review could affect large areas of land in the UK, including the areas where the raw materials are sourced. There is a need to look systematically at the value of this land, to employ national environmental datasets to assess land suitability and potential impacts, and to consider the possible impacts of climate change.

  Second, housing should be built according to guidelines which take into account the need to minimise environmental damage during construction and environmental impact during occupation. The current building programme has failed to keep up with the advances that have been made in environmental technology, and the opportunity to incorporate this technology into the proposed building programme should not be lost. A national strategy could consider issues such as the lifetime of new building stock, and ways of minimising maintenance and repair costs. Public-transport provision and the need for local facilities could also form part of a national strategy.

3.  Is the current planning system robust enough to ensure that the environmental implications of building projects are fully taken into account? How can the planning system be used to increase the building of more sustainable housing? Would the proposed changes to the planning system in the Barker Review have a positive or negative effect on the environment?

  No, the current planning system is not robust enough. It is also very uneven in its requirements for and use of environmental information.

  Where materials-sourcing is concerned, the planning process must balance the national, regional and local requirements against the need to protect the environment, in order to secure essential materials at least environmental cost. Effective planning for minerals supply depends on identifying locations where mineral extraction will have least effect on the environment and amenity, undertaking operations with minimum environmental impacts and, as mineral extraction is not a permanent use of land, ensuring high quality restoration to beneficial after-use. Well-restored mineral workings may often become important environmental assets, for example in terms of biodiversity and amenity.

4.  Where will the proposed new housing be built? What are the implications for land-use and flood risk of the large-scale proposed building projects?

  It is clear that costs will be lower if building occurs in areas with a stable geology and hydrology. These features of the location should at least be fully understood before construction starts, both to avoid damaging the environment and to ensure that the buildings themselves do not suffer subsequent damage. In particular, the following should be avoided: building over grubbed-out hedges, on swell/shrink clays, on flood plains, on landslides, or over mined ground; the use of chemically-aggressive materials etc. Working with the landscape/geology/hydrology rather than fighting it can save costs especially if the housing stock and infrastrucure is to last a long time. Water supply and waste-water handling is likely to become an important constraint in some locations especially in the South-East, and will need to be examined in the context of possible climate change, agricultural needs and the preservation of habitats. It is important that construction take account of the possible extremes that might result from climate change, rather than the predicted average conditions.

  Much of the information required by planners is available but it isn't always used. CEH would be able to provide information on the land-use and flood-risk implications of proposed large-scale building projects, based on a flood-risk database, the Land Cover Map 2000 (LCM 2000) and the Countryside Survey. It would also be able to comment on the ecological implications at the landscape scale (eg fragmentation, isolation, colonisation), and on the effect on carbon balance of the land-use change. BGS can offer extensive geological data.

5.  Is it possible to ensure materials and resources used, and waste produced, during building do not have a harmful impact on the environment?

The need for materials

  Construction projects (including housing and associated infrastructure) require a wide range of mineral raw materials and mineral-derived products, eg sand, gravel and crushed rock for concrete, crushed rock for road surfaces, clay for bricks and tiles, limestone and chalk for cement, gypsum for plasterboard and plaster, and metals for plumbing and wiring. Many of these materials are produced in the UK (some 248 million tonnes of construction minerals were produced in the UK in 2002), but some may need to be imported. It is obvious that materials and resources should be locally sourced if possible, and waste locally managed. About 60 tonnes of aggregates (crushed rock, sand and gravel) are used in building the average house. Per capita consumption of primary (natural) aggregate is about 4 tonnes.

Sources of aggregate materials

  Aggregate and cement sources will require identification and earmarking for a sustained house-building programme. Minerals are not always found close to where they are required, so some have to be transported from locations across the UK and, in the case of metals, even from overseas. For example, there are many sand and gravel quarries in the Southeast but materials from these, while suitable for many purposes, cannot meet all specifications. Construction of access roads for housing developments requires a supply of tough resistant rocks like hard limestone and granite. These do not occur naturally in the Southeast and have to be quarried in areas such as the Mendip Hills in Somerset or Charnwood in Leicestershire, and then transported.

  Marine-dredged aggregates (chiefly from the English Channel and North Sea) account for about 20% of the sand and gravel used in England and Wales. Recycled materials from various sources including glass, concrete rubble from demolition sites, blast-furnace slag and old road surfaces now account for about 25% of all aggregates used in Britain (the total being about 230 to 250 million tonnes per annum). The use of recycled materials has doubled in the past 15 years but there are only limited prospects of this increasing further.

  Competition for aggregates between construction and flood protection is likely to increase in the UK and Europe.

Environmental impact of quarrying

  Land worked for mineral extraction accounts for about 0.5% of the total land area of England. The local impacts of quarrying create significant public concern. Impacts include traffic along access roads, noise, vibration and dust caused by quarry machinery, the visual impact of the quarrying operations and the potential effects on groundwater and river systems. These can lead to opposition to new developments or extensions of operating quarries. However, new quarry developments must comply with locally-agreed planning policies before permission can be granted to allow extraction. Once a quarry is working, the operations are closely monitored and regulated to minimise environmental impacts. Before operations are permitted to start, quarry owners are required to present detailed plans for the restoration of sites. These measures may preserve or even improve the overall quality of the natural environment after the quarry is worked out. Quarries are restored to a range of uses including agriculture, forestry, nature conservation and recreation.

  Environmental impacts from transport can be minimised by extracting aggregates close to the construction site, and using rail rather than road for long-distance transport.

6.  Are the building regulations as they stand capable of ensuring that new housing is truly sustainable in the long term? How could they be improved? Could greater use be made of existing environmental standards for housing?

  There probably is a need for greater regulation, both at the level of individual buildings and at the level of infrastructure planning. It is promising that the Deputy Prime Minister has welcomed the recent report of the Sustainable Buildings Task Group, which called for a new code of practice for the construction industry.

  Improvement could take place by learning from test projects. An example of a development where environmental sustainability is being considered is Nottingham University's new student accommodation. This development is being monitored, especially for its energy efficiency, and such monitoring should provide feedback to allow improved planning of subsequent developments.

7.  How will it be possible to ensure a sustainable infrastructure, including transport and water supply, which will be necessary to support any extensive house building, is put in place?

  The infrastructure and the buildings themselves should be designed together to make the most of the opportunities for sustainability. For example, the design of buildings needs to allow for the application of renewable-energy technologies.

  Measures which should be considered include: the collection and recycling of water for use in twin systems (potable/non-potable), as in the Netherlands, and the local sourcing of power and heat (by each individual building having its own CHP and fuel source, for example, or by the exploitation of local geothermal energy opportunities).

  The location of community facilities could be planned to reduce transport requirements, ie where extensive new housing is planned it should be thought of not simply as additional housing but as multiple-use development.

8.  Do those involved in housing supply, both in the public and private sector, have the necessary skills and training to ensure new housing meets environmental objectives? If not, how can the knowledge base of those involved in the planning and building process be improved?

  Not all do, and this is an issue which could be addressed as part of a national strategy aimed at ensuring that the environment is at the heart of any building programme. In particular, the involved parties could benefit from visits to certain continental European countries where planning and construction have for many years been closely linked with environmental objectives.

May 2004

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 31 January 2005