Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence


Memorandum from English Heritage

  English Heritage welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Select Committee's Inquiry into sustainable housing and the implications of the Barker Review of Housing Supply.

  English Heritage is the Government's statutory advisor on the historic environment in England.

1.  How future housing building programmes can be made truly sustainable and take full account of environmental objectives

  English Heritage is concerned to ensure that all those making decisions in relation to strategic housing provision are aware of the contribution historic buildings make to the total stock. Every effort should therefore be made to make best use of the existing stock to avoid unnecessary environmental and financial costs of demolition and new build. It is also important to ensure that the debate does not deal only with the supply of new housing but also looks at making best use of existing buildings through "Living over the Shop" initiatives, conversions to residential, reducing vacancies in local authority and other public housing etc.

  Evidence submitted at the public inquiry into the Nelson West housing development plans which proposed large-scale replacement of Victorian terraced housing stock with new-built homes demonstrated that in this case the typical cost of refurbishing one of the existing houses and maintaining it for 30 years was under £25,000 compared to a total cost of £64,000 for replacing it with a new property and maintaining it for a similar period. We recognise, however, that it is not realistic to retain every building, nor should one focus entirely on increasing demand in low-demand areas without paying attention to the high demand in the SE.

  Our work on historic landscape characterisation in the Thames Gateway is helping to identify those areas best able to cope with significant new house building while also presenting elements of the historic environment that can form the centrepieces or set the standards and character for new development. English Heritage believes the historic environment is crucially important to the regeneration of the Thames Gateway. Physical investment in the built environment acts as a catalyst for regeneration, encourages additional funding and private sector investment, supports local businesses and enables economic growth. The impact of heritage investment is also demonstrated in new economic confidence, changing perceptions of places and a stronger sense of community identity and distinctiveness.

2.  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 has very little to say about the environment in general and does not mention the historic environment. English Heritage welcomes the production of the report and its analysis which is of considerable assistance in understanding housing issues. However, because of the focus on economic factors there is a danger that some of the recommendations may have a negative impact on our heritage as well the wider environment. Of particular concern are the proposals for fast-track consent, the possible requirement for local authorities to overallocate housing land and the general lack of emphasis on the need to build on brown field before greenfield land.

  More work is needed to demonstrate how the recommendations in the Barker Report can be achieved within the general principles of sustainable development. English Heritage considers that it will be a challenge to do so, but that it should be possible to significantly increase housing supply in areas of highest demand in a broadly sustainable manner, although this is likely to be at the cost of some less important elements of the historic environment.

  It is important that new housing, and its associated infrastructure, does not exacerbate problems in existing urban areas, for example by shifting a settlement's focus away from the traditional historic core. New housing needs to be planned in ways that increase rather than decrease the viability of historic settlements by making best use of existing (often historic) infrastructure.

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

  The current review of A better quality of life offers the opportunity to set out succinctly the Government's commitment to a sustainable housing policy. English Heritage is not convinced that an additional document is necessary.

4.  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?

  The planning system is already in the process of undergoing significant changes, and some of these (particularly in relation to Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks and their need for SEA-compatible sustainability appraisals) and the review of PPS1 and other PPSs further emphasise the importance of sustainable development. Given that the planning system is in flux, it is difficult to be certain whether it is or is not robust enough to deal properly with environmental implications.

  The current initiatives to speed up the planning process (which our "Transforming Casework" project contributes towards) should help to increase the building of new houses but we are concerned that some of the suggestions in the Barker Review could have a negative effect on the environment, if it is not fully integrated when the details are worked up. The areas of particular concern are:

    —  The potential increased flexibility for greenbelt allocation/deselection.

    —  The relaxation of permitted development rights.

    —  "Outline Only" permissions.

    —  The stripping back of 106 agreements to only deal with direct impacts.

    —  The freeing up of Planning-gain supplement funds which might give a few cash-strapped authorities a financial incentive to grant permission.

    —  A lack of recognition that quality is a key to long term success in housing developments.

  Until some of the details of the Barker recommendations are worked out, it is not possible to give a definitive statement on whether the impact on the environment will be positive or negative, but there are elements which English Heritage believe will need very careful handling to avoid significant negative impacts on the historic environment.

5.  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?

  English Heritage is working with Government to provide a better information base for making decisions in both the high and low demand areas. This is principally through rapid historic landscape characterisation which provides a simple but robust character framework which will be of assistance to decision-makers and which identifies areas of high and low sensitivity, We believe our work in the Thames Gateway and in the Pathfinder areas will provide timely contextual information that, along with other social, economic and environmental information, will provide the basis for more sustainable housing developments that remain valued by residents in the long-term. The challenges of accommodating large numbers of new housing units in the south east are extremely challenging and English Heritage is keen to play its part in ensuring they are accommodated without unacceptable damage to the historic environment.

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

  English Heritage is keen to encourage sustainable construction techniques and is involved in research into traditional building materials and techniques which may be of assistance in contemporary construction. As a general rule it is more energy efficient to adapt existing buildings than demolish them and build afresh and many housing developers, such as Urban Splash, have demonstrated that it makes for a successful business model.

7.  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?

  English Heritage has no observations on this issue.

8.  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 implementation of sustainability appraisal and strategic environmental assessment in significant new plans and programmes, and through the regional and local development plan system should ensure that the sustainability of major infrastructure projects is tested at an early stage. The taxation of land value increases and changes to the 106 agreements system suggested in the Barker Review must ensure that high quality infrastructure is provided, in advance of housing development, in a way that does not cause significant damage to the historic environment.

9.  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?

  Our involvement in casework relating to new housing development in historic areas makes it clear that there is still considerable work to be done to improve understanding of how taking environmental considerations into account from the earliest stages in a development brings social, environmental and economic benefits. We are tackling the skills issue in the public sector through HELM (Historic Environment Local Management). This is a comprehensive training programme aiming to improve decisions that impact on the historic environment by raising awareness of its intrinsic value among non-heritage professionals and decision-makers. Those involved in housing are one of the target groups. See for more detail. We are also involved in developing technical building skills training to make these more sustainable and better reflect our environmental concerns. We are aware that there is a considerable amount of work to be done in the area of housing supply, and further encouragement from government in this area would be particularly welcome.

  These initiatives fit well with the findings of the recently published Egan Review and we are examining its findings to help fine-tune our work.

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