Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Environment Agency


  The Environment Agency (the Agency) believes that the cross-Government interest in housing and construction demonstrated through the Sustainable Communities Plan and the commissioning of the Barker Review, provides an opportunity to move towards a strategic approach to planning household growth and more sustainable forms of construction and buildings. The quality of new housing, particularly the standard of environmental performance, must be aligned with proposals for accelerating household growth. Without improved standards, Government housing policy cannot be considered sustainable. In particular, the Agency believes:

    —  Too many buildings are environmentally inefficient and do not make best use of limited resources such as energy and water.

    —  The construction process itself has negative environmental implications, particularly for waste management, pollution incidents and land take.

    —  Buildings need to be located in the right place. This means avoiding areas of unacceptable environmental risk such as flood plains and locating homes in places where existing infrastructure is already in place.


  1.1  The Environment Agency is the principal environmental advisor to the Government and the Welsh Assembly. The Agency has a broad interest in the environmental performance of housing and its construction, and would like to see its detrimental environmental impacts reduced. More specifically:

    —  As consultees on land use planning, we advise on where buildings and infrastructure should be located to reduce environmental impacts and flood risk.

    —  As regulators of waste and discharges our role is to ensure construction waste is managed safely and to drive a reduction in construction pollution and waste volume.

    —  As the organisation with a statutory duty for strategic water resources planning, our role is to ensure homes are built in places that have the water capacity to support them, and to standards that encourage efficient water use.


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

  2.1  The principle message from the Barker Review is that current annual housing completions need to be increased to meet the demand for affordable and other housing and to bring about stability in house prices. The Agency believes that this increase in the quantity of housing completions can only be sustainable if the environmental performance of new buildings is significantly improved and detrimental environmental impacts of the construction process reduced.

  2.2  The Barker Review's terms of reference included the interaction of the housebuilding industry with Government's sustainable development objectives. However, the Review focused on the economic objectives of sustainable development and increasing the amount of social housing. Greater appreciation of the environmental dimensions of household growth is now needed to ensure that emerging proposals are compatible with, and supportive of the environmental pillar of sustainable development.

  2.3  In particular the Agency would like to see further analysis of how increased household growth will impact on the prudent use of natural resources and the effective protection of the environment. This analysis is vital if we are to manage the increasing demands being placed on the environment. For example, even under current projections of growth we know that:

    —  Over 15,000 megalitres of water per day are put into the public water supply. Household water demand is rising (UK Government, Quality of Life Counts 2004 Indicator D7). Yet we are facing greater uncertainty of water supply with climate change.

    —  45% of the UK's solid waste goes to landfill (UK Government, Quality of Life Counts 2004 Headline Indicator H15) and household waste production has been rising since 1995-96.

    —  Increased flood risk due to climate change means that annual damages from flooding may rise from around £100 million at present to between £460 million (Local Stewardship) and £2,500 million (World Markets) by 2080 under various economic scenarios (

    —  Nearly 30% of the UK's CO2 emissions come from the domestic sector. The gap remains considerable between the current situation and the aspirations in the Energy White Paper 2003, where "new homes will be designed to need very little energy and will perhaps even achieve zero carbon emissions" by 2020.

Question 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?

  2.4  The Government is currently reviewing its sustainable development strategy. The Agency expects the new strategy to underpin all Government policies—including those for household growth—and ensure environmental aspects are balanced with social and economic goals.

  2.5  The Agency welcomed the Sustainable Communities Plan as a strategic approach to planning and delivering household growth. Strategic growth can accommodate design and delivery principles which reduce environmental impacts such as management of construction waste and water efficiency. It should also support better integration between household and neighbourhood design with accessibility for essential services. Sustainable communities must be more than a building programme if the Government is to secure its sustainable development goals.

  2.6  A critical strand of a strategic approach is higher environmental performance in homes. The Agency supports the Sustainable Buildings Task Group's call for an immediate increase in water and energy efficiency in new homes through Building Regulations and the introduction of a national Code for Sustainable Buildings. This new Code would deliver the improved quality of new homes and communities proposed in the Egan Review. As the scope of the Code includes the standards of new homes and the building process, its adoption would drive both improved environmental performance of buildings and a reduction in the impacts caused during construction.

Question 3a:  Is the current planning system robust enough to ensure that the environmental implications of building projects are fully taken into account?

  2.7  The planning system has an integral role in ensuring the environment is at the heart of any building programme. The reformed spatial planning system set out in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act should promote sustainable development. This should now be reflected in all Planning Policy Statements and accompanying guidance. This means:

    —  Helping to produce a pattern of development that meets economic, social and environmental needs for present and future generations.

    —  A planning system that translates the principles contained in the UK's Sustainable Development Strategy into a spatial context over a period of at least 20 years (the "lifetime" of Regional Spatial Strategies).

    —  Better links between national commitments, such as the Energy White Paper energy efficiency targets, the Government's national waste strategy and planning.

  2.8 We remain concerned that the planning system does not adequately take into account the infrastructure requirements of development. Although the Government's proposals for RSSs and LDFs place more emphasis on the need to take infrastructure requirements into account, there are significant tensions between proposals for growth in the South East which suffer from a water supply deficit, shortages of waste handling facilities and poor air quality. The current planning system does not allow resource efficiency to be taken into account in development plan allocations or planning applications, other than ensuring that sufficient infrastructure is planned to serve the development. This approach mitigates against prudent use of resources.

  2.9  Neither does the planning system encourage consideration of environmental impacts over the whole lifetime of development. Indeed, the "lifetime" of development is not defined in Government guidance. Development causes impacts from its pre-construction phases (for example aggregate extraction and the use of energy to make building materials) to potentially long after it has been demolished, in the case of contaminated land. The planning system should more explicitly recognise these impacts and attempt to avoid environmental damage, promote positive environmental impacts, and reduce and internalise adverse effects.

Question 3b:  How can the planning system be used to increase the building of more sustainable housing?

  2.10  The Agency welcomed the recognition in draft PPS1 that spatial planning should contribute to the prudent use of resources and take into account long term costs and benefits. However, the language used in that section of the draft PPS was relatively weaker and focused on energy at the expense of other vital resources such as water, minerals, and so on. The Agency urged that the PPS:

    —  must ensure that the sustainable development planning purpose delivers development that meets economic, social and environmental needs simultaneously;

    —  should consistently refer to the aim of environmental protection and enhancement;

    —  should place more emphasis on the prudent use of natural resources and provide clear advice on the specific role of planning in securing resource efficiency and sustainable construction. Energy and water efficiency of development should become material planning considerations;

    —  must provide better advice on how to encourage positive planning and the delivery of quality development, including through an updated sustainable development and planning good practice guide;

    —  should give more explicit recognition to the role of spatial planning in dealing with risks, especially the potential impacts of climate change (including on flood risk) and provide clear advice on how spatial planning objectives can be delivered; and

    —  should recognise the enhanced role of statutory consultees, such as the Agency, in pre-application discussions and encourage local planning authorities and developers to seek statutory consultees views as early as possible in plan preparation or project development.

  2.11  The Agency supports the Sustainable Buildings Task Group's recommendation that PPS1 be accompanied by a best practice guide for sustainable buildings. This guide should address measures that can be promoted through the planning system to promote aspects of sustainable housing that cannot be directly influenced through Building Regulations. Examples include:

    —  Improved water efficiency in development design and layout.

    —  Sustainable drainage.

    —  Reduction in the use of materials during the construction process.

    —  Renewable energy generation.

  The guide should also explain the complementary roles of the building regulations and the planning system.

  2.12  The Agency believes that environmental capacity and the demands that development makes on natural resources (and associated infrastructure) should be more explicitly recognised in planning policies. This should be done by making the energy and water efficiency of development a material planning consideration. This particularly applies to parts of the country where major growth is planned. For example, the Agency is currently working with Regional Assemblies to integrate various natural resource issues into Regional Spatial Strategies. Its work with the South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA) includes identifying how water resources will be affected by major growth in Ashford[24]. This approach offers more flexibility in considering options for growth in areas where environmental capacity is limited. This flexibility extends to the overall amount of development, its location and its phasing. It will also help to meet all of the Government's sustainable development objectives.

Question 4a: Where will the proposed new housing be built?

  2.13  The Sustainable Communities Plan clearly identified the location of new homes in the South East. It is not yet clear where the extra homes proposed in the Barker Review will be located although it is likely that many will be located in the South East. The location of new homes will determine their environmental impact. It is critical that proposals should:

    —  Avoid inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding.

    —  Reduce the risk of flooding through the use of sustainable drainage schemes.

    —  Protect and enhance the quality of water resources including aquifers, rivers, streams, lakes and seawater, consistent with the requirements of the Water Framework Directive.

    —  Recognise that the availability of water resources should influence the location, quantity and phasing of development and the need to encourage water efficiency in new development.

    —  Contribute to the objectives of the National Air Quality Strategy.

    —  Encourage waste minimisation and provision of space for separated waste in new developments.

    —  Protect important habitats and encourage enhanced biodiversity by contributing to Biodiversity Action Plans.

    —  Be informed by adapting to climate change.

    —  Be phased to reduce the need for essential environmental infrastructure.

Question 4b:  What are the implications for land-use and flood risk of the large-scale proposed building projects?

  2.14  The Agency supports the precautionary sequential approach advocated in PPG25 that seeks to prevent inappropriate development in floodplains. We also note PPG25 states that the potential effects of climate change may be a 20% increase in peak river flows. In its review of PPG25 during 2004-05, the Agency will be seeking more explicit recognition of the likely effects of climate change. Nearly two million homes and businesses in England and Wales are at risk from flooding with a value of over £220 billion and affecting nearly five million people (10% of the population). This situation will be exacerbated by climate change and the Agency would like to see PPG25 strengthened and the Agency to become a statutory consultee on flood risk.

  2.15  In 2002-03 planning applications objected to by the Agency on flood risk grounds rose by 80% on 2001-02 to 4,523 in England, mainly because many developers ignored the Government's advice in PPG25 and submitted planning applications without a flood risk assessment. In 2002-03 the number of sustained objections on flood risk made by the Agency in England where the outcome is known rose to 1,047 cases. Of these 826 were in line with Agency advice while 221 went against the Agency (21%).

  2.16  The Agency has already recommended to the Government that PPS1 contains more explicit recognition of the role of spatial planning in dealing with risks that the environment poses to development and people and, in particular, the threat of flooding that will be made worse by climate change. The recently published Foresight Flood and Coastal Defence Project indicates that annual damages from flooding may rise from around £100 million at present to between £460 million (Local Stewardship) and £2,500 million (World Markets) by 2080 under various economic scenarios[25]. We believe the PPS should highlight the strategic planning issues arising from climate change more forcefully.

  2.17  The Agency supports sustainable drainage measures which, through mimicking natural drainage processes, avoid adding to flood risks both at a development site and elsewhere in the catchment. The Agency's policy with regard to the discharge of surface water is to oppose any development, including housing, which will aggravate existing or create new flooding problems either on the site or elsewhere by way of additional surface water discharge direct into a watercourse. Appropriate sustainable drainage techniques control surface run-off as close to its origin as possible and, as well as contributing to flood risk management, can provide benefits for water quality and amenity, and will help to reduce the potential tension between the need for high density development and for the "greening" (or improved sustainability) of the urban environment.

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

  2.18  The Agency believes it is possible to improve the resource efficiency of the building process. The Agency supports the recommendation of the Sustainable Buildings Task Group that Building Regulations should be revised to specify a minimum percentage of by value (at least 10%) of re-used / reclaimed / recycled materials in building projects. The Agency also supports the widespread adoption of Site Waste Management Plans once they have been trailed with the industry.

  2.19  Since 2001, fly-tipping and other forms of illegal waste activity tackled by the Agency has increased by more than 40%. Local authorities are also reporting increases in the amount fly-tipping they tackle. The need to increase the completion rate of new housing could worsen this problem. Waste from construction, demolition and excavation operations is a big problem in some parts of the country—for example, in areas of London, 40% of fly-tips dealt with by the Agency include these sort of wastes. The construction industry needs to make a concerted effort to better control the wastes that they produce so as to prevent it being illegally dumped.

  2.20  Accompanying guidance to PPS1 as suggested in paragraph 2.15, and a national code for sustainable buildings would support those developers and local authorities wishing to act in a more sustainable manner, especially if the guidance provided information on sustainable construction techniques. We are willing to assist with the preparation of this Guide.

Question 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?

  2.21  There are sustainability improvements to be made that are already within the scope of the Building Regulations. Statutory minimum levels of resource efficiency are required in buildings, particularly on energy and water efficiency and recycled waste used during construction. This has the potential to deliver cost savings to house owners and occupiers, and constructors.

  2.22  The Agency supports the statements by the Deputy Prime Minister in July 2003 and October 2003, that 20-30% water efficiency savings are feasible and crucial. The Agency also supports the recommendation by the Sustainable Buildings Task Group that the Government should regulate for a 25% saving on average per capita water consumption, most probably through the Building Regulations. Similarly, a 25% energy efficiency improvement should be put in place under Part L of the Building Regulations by 2005 and the provision of space for the separate collection of recyclable materials in multi-occupancy buildings should be incorporated in the Building Regulations in the same timeframe. There is no legal obstacle to further work in these specific areas.

  2.23  Despite the above opportunities for progression, there is no explicit statutory requirement that the Building Regulations should cover sustainable development. Without this statutory requirement the Building Regulations cannot ensure that new housing is truly sustainable. The Sustainable and Secure Buildings Bill will be a significant step forward in ensuring that sustainability is a legitimate part of the regulations and will increase their scope to include a wider range of issues, such as flood resilience.

  2.24  It is vital that the Government urgently improves the enforcement of the Building Regulations. A significant improvement in the sustainability of all new housing will only be achieved if the performance of buildings constructed under the Building Regulations is adequately checked and monitored. There is a need for discussion with local authorities about the performance of building control departments and approved inspectors, and whether they are adequately resourced and trained for their existing duties and additional ones to be brought about by new requirements.

  2.25  The Agency supports the Sustainable Buildings Task Group's view that the present reliance on checking "robust details" in building design may not be adequate in delivering the required levels of sustainability. Poor site practice, or inadequate skills in the appropriate building techniques, can lead to performance improvements being lost. Reliable post-completion checks should be conducted on a proportion of all new and refurbished buildings.

Question 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?

  2.26  Proposals for new homes must be informed by the availability of existing infrastructure such as water supply and treatment facilities. New infrastructure needs should be minimised. Based on present growth scenarios, predictions of climate change and draft water company business plans, modelling by the Agency indicates it is likely that there will be a water supply deficit over much of the South East of England by 2015. This modelling work is being refined to influence Regional Spatial Strategies. Substantially increasing housing growth will increase pressure on existing water supply infrastructure and, in areas such as the South East where the majority of water comes from aquifers, is likely to jeopardise achieving the environmental objectives set as a result of the transposition of the Water Framework Directive. For this reason alone, there are significant advantages in ensuring that all new development is constructed to much higher standards of water efficiency and that financial and regulatory incentives are used to encourage retrofitting existing development. Increasing water efficiency will also reduce the negative environmental impacts of new infrastructure, the tax burden on water charge-payers and increase disposable income of households.

  2.27  Given the long term projections for increased housing numbers and the long lead in time for the construction of new infrastructure, it is important that best use is made of existing supplies through improved demand management.

  2.28  The funding arrangements for new infrastructure needed to serve major housebuilding is need of review. At present, water companies do not pass the cost on to developers—it is reflected in their five year business plans and borne by local charge-payers. If the major house-building is in the interests of the whole nation—as claimed in the Barker Review—then some of the cost of providing the infrastructure should logically be borne by the whole nation.


  The Agency believes that any addition to the quantity of the housing stock in England and Wales should also be guided by improved quality. All new housing needs to have high standards of environmental performance and make better use of limited resources such as energy and water.

    —  The construction process itself has negative environmental implications, particularly for waste management, pollution incidents and land take.

    —  Buildings need to be located in the right place. This means avoiding areas of unacceptable environmental risk such as flood plains and locating homes in places where existing infrastructure is already in place.

May 2004

24   SEERA, South East Plan Discussion Paper No.9: Natural Environment and Resources, SEERA, March 2004. See: Back

25 Back

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