Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence


Memorandum from English Nature


    —  English Nature recognises the provision of adequate and affordable housing as a basic human necessity. Our concerns are less over the need to provide additional housing but more over about where and how this takes place. We recognise the need for additional housing provision in the south east, as set out in the ODPM's Communities Plan[26], and are engaging wherever we can to help ensure that this is carried out in a sustainable way.

    —  There are particular locations where we feel that environmental capacity to accommodate more houses has been overreached. In Dorset and Surrey, for example, the wildlife communities in the remaining lowland heath areas are struggling to maintain viable populations due to the cumulative impacts of adjacent development pressure.

    —  New housing developments must show major resource productivity improvements in water, energy and materials use. They must also ensure proper provision of accessible natural green-space. This remains a major challenge whether or not the Barker report figures are implemented.

    —  We feel the final Barker report sees the planning system as the problem rather than the solution. This is where we feel her conclusions are most flawed. In our view, her interim report provided a more balanced picture of a number of issues that required simultaneous action.

    —  English Nature would question the basic premise that the planning system must allocate much more land for housing in order to create an over-supply in the high demand regions and thereby reduce house price inflation. This strikes us as over-simplistic. It casts the planning system as the prime obstacle to tackling house price volatility and weak industry responsiveness rather than as a positive means of meeting our housing demands in a sustainable way. What is needed is an approach that encourages innovation in the house building sector and secures quicker building rates on projects that are approved. Positive planning can contribute to this.

    —  Barker's conclusions seem to centre solely on planning the right amount of housing with less emphasis on the quality of this provision. It excludes any consideration of environmental impact. The planning system has a central role in ensuring that new communities are of a high sustainable quality which, in the words of the ODPM, will stand the test of time, be where people want to live, and which will enable people to meet their aspirations and potential[27].

    —  The Government is already taking many of the steps recommended by the Barker Report through its reform of the planning system. These include trying to instill greater certainty and speed into the process without sacrificing quality, by giving regional bodies a stronger role and by promoting greater housing provision in the south-east through the ODPM Sustainable Communities Plan.

    —  The Government's proposals for growth in the south-east already raise challenges in terms of not overreaching environmental capacity and in successfully matching housing with sustainable supporting infrastructure. The Barker report seems to want to go further along this road to increase the overall allocation for housing growth in the south east. This moves us further away from the plan, monitor and manage approach introduced in Planning Policy Guidance 3 on Housing and back to "predict and provide".

    —  Our present housing market reflects many different and complex factors and to see the relaxation of planning controls as the only solution to house price volatility and lack of market responsiveness is in our view invalid. The planning process has a positive role to play, along with other measures, to help a poorly performing house building industry to innovate, use land efficiently, to build to higher sustainable standards and to generally achieve much better quality.


  2.1  English Nature is the statutory body that works to conserve the biodiversity and geology of England for this and future generations to enjoy. We have an important role to play in helping the Government meet its sustainable development aims. The targets and actions needed to protect and manage biodiversity are set out in the Government's Biodiversity Strategy for England[28] and the UK Biodiversity Action Plan[29], which we help to deliver.

  2.2  We designate and support the management of European sites (Special Conservation Areas, Special Protection Areas and Ramsar Sites, known as the Natura 2000 Network) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and put nature conservation legislation into practice (Habitats Regulations, Wildlife and Countryside Act and Countryside and Rights of Way Act) to protect our most valuable habitats, species and geological sites. We promote planning policies and practices to protect and enhance biodiversity and geology in rural, urban, coastal and marine areas. Our wider work includes working with other organisations to involve people with their natural environment and with area-based schemes to support local and regional economies.


  3.1  Policy-makers need to recognise that biodiversity is vital to our quality of life. Its importance to society has already been recognised through nature-conservation legislation and various protected sites, but it cannot be maintained through protected sites alone. Past and present human activity and human-population pressures have damaged the natural environment and disrupted ecosystems (the complicated relationship that exists between animals, plants and their natural environment which maintains the variety of life). We need to actively manage our natural environment to help these damaged ecosystems recover so they can continue to function effectively and support economic productivity.

  3.2  The planning system must provide an effective framework for the active management our natural environment to help these damaged ecosystems recover so they can continue to function effectively, contribute to the quality of the local environment, and support economic productivity. Future resource use, land management and built development must recognise the limits for using natural resources and prevent irreversible losses of biodiversity.

  3.3  Social progress, economic growth and employment are vital to people's quality of life and a high-quality natural environment supports economic and social well-being. Everyone should have access to green spaces that provide opportunities to experience wildlife, that are close to where they live and work, for education, relaxation, exercise and general good health.


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

  4.1  English Nature feels that Kate Barker recommendations are poorly aligned with the Government's sustainable development strategy[30] and its objective to deliver its four key aims in an integrated way. Kate Barker's terms of reference were too narrowly defined to be compatible with the objective of achieving sustainable development. Her remit was to review the issues underlying the lack of supply and responsiveness of housing in the UK and, in particular, how the house building industry interacted with the planning system and the Government's sustainable development objectives. As a consequence her conclusions focus on the supply of housing rather than the broader issue of achieving sustainability.

  4.2  Kate Barker's findings have tended to place the blame on the planning system for house price inflation due to a lack of responsiveness to market conditions in its allocation and release of house building land. Planning tends to be viewed in a restrictive light, with economic considerations pitched against environmental ones. We are concerned that the Barker recommendations refer to the need to balance economic, social and environmental objectives and make trade offs between them. This is at odds with Government's policy to promote a positive and proactive planning system geared to the delivery of all four objectives of sustainable development in an integrated way[31]. Ensuring good quality environmental and social conditions is the only way of creating places where people want to live that provide the full range of opportunities needed for all.

  4.3  The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 introduces the legal requirement for plan-makers to work with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development. Most of Kate Barker's recommendations relate to rolling back the influence of planning and there is a danger that if these are taken up that this will dilute the positive role of planning in achieving sustainable development.

  4.4  Kate Barker is stronger on fiscal measures required to secure delivery. She recognises the need to tax the windfall gain that landowners accrue through planning consent. English Nature also sees the need to support sustainable development through some form of "betterment taxation" provided this does not act perversely by encouraging unsustainable development. We do agree that it is only right that some of the benefit accruing from planning permission should be taxed to channel benefits back to the community.

  4.5  Many of Barker's recommendations do merit further development and mirror some of the existing planning reforms. We believe there need to be stronger incentives to encourage use of empty and under-used properties. This should be linked with local authorities strengthening their urban capacity studies and looking at means of increasing densities in existing residential centres, including the scope for encouraging more sustainable use of under utilised land and upper floor accommodation in commercial properties and shops. However, it is vital that the economical use of land does not preclude communities enjoying an adequate provision of accessible natural greenspace.

  4.6  The report promotes the use of design codes linked to Local Development Orders as a means of speeding up development approval. We would give guarded support to this approach provided that these codes factored in high sustainable development standards.

  4.7  Barker recognises that the level of planning fees and the resources available to local authorities must be adequate to meet the cost of providing a high quality planning service and we support these conclusions.

  4.8  There is, of course, the question of how the additional housing allocated can be achieved in a sustainable way. Defra has only recently published the study by Entec[32] on the environmental impacts of the increases in housing supply proposed in the UK which factors in the Barker recommendations. The first recommendation of this study was that further work was required to understand more fully the environmental and sustainability implications and regional impacts of the growth postulated by the Barker report and the assumptions upon which this is based. The Barker report does not take account of the costs of these environmental impacts, which would lead to a significantly lower equilibrium demand than forecast in the report.

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?

  4.9  There are strong arguments that a national spatial strategy is required to provide the spatial context for how we achieve sustainable development in this country and set a sustainable framework for regional spatial strategies to meet our infrastructure needs in an integrated and co-ordinated way whilst wisely managing environmental assets.

  4.10  However, although do not have a national spatial strategy in England comparable to those in Wales and Scotland, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 does gives the planning system a sustainable development duty. This should mean that the four objectives of social progress, environmental protection, prudent use of natural resources and maintenance of economic growth, are met in an integrated way.

  4.11  The final version of PPS 1 needs to provide the policy basis for placing the environment at the heart of the building programme which must align closely with the review of the UK Sustainable Development Strategy. Whether or not the Barker recommendations push the provision of housing above and beyond that set out in the ODPM Sustainable Communities Plan there remains a requirement for the planning process to deliver this growth in a sustainable way.

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?

  4.12  The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 provides for a framework of Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks to underpin individual development decisions. These should take environmental implications into full account through the statutory requirements to undergo sustainability appraisal and comply with the EU Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive. Assuming that these processes have been applied rigorously then planning policies should have robustly addressed environmental considerations. There is then a further requirement for many individual developments to be subject to Environmental Impact Assessment which provides a further test of the degree to which environmental considerations have been addressed.

  4.13  Where the planning system fails is not to be able to achieve the highest degree of sustainability in the design of these projects and this is where Government needs to raise standards. The new houses will have significant implications for energy, water, and waste, areas where there are strong Government policies and commitments. How this is addressed is covered in more detail below.

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?

  4.14  The ODPM Sustainable Communities Plan sets out where the major allocations for housing growth are to take place and English Nature feels this should be the template for the housing provision required. The ENTEC study by Defra has only scratched the surface of assessing the impact of the growth in the south-east and there is clearly more work required to ensure that the housing growth is provided in a sustainable way.

  4.15  Our view is that the developments need to be framed around a "green infrastructure" exploiting and enhancing existing natural systems and green networks to provide multiple benefits such sustainable drainage and flood storage, recreation, access and wildlife habitats. This is already being developed in initiatives currently being undertaken in the Thames Gateway and Milton Keynes and South Midlands growth areas.

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

  4.16  This is a major challenge as the construction industry is one of the United Kingdom's largest producers of waste, a major extractor of raw materials, and makes significant use of energy in producing building products. In addition, the energy consumed in buildings accounts for about half of the United Kingdom's emissions of the "greenhouse" gas carbon dioxide. From this starting point there is a long way to go to ensure that the increased house building programme will not have adverse environmental impacts.

  4.17  For this reason English Nature feels that the reform of the planning system and the delivery of the Sustainable Communities Plan needs to seek a "quantum leap" in sustainable design and construction. This must form an essential component of the initial master plan for the new communities and be followed through to the construction stage which must meet the highest sustainability standards.

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?

  4.18  The Building Regulations have the potential for greatly influencing the standards of sustainability in the construction sector. The current Building Regulations only achieve some sustainable objectives, such as energy conservation, but there is a need for ODPM to bring forward a review which strengthens its contributions. We support the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Bill which is designed to bring sustainability within the Building Regulations. We also support the recommendations of the Sustainable Buildings Task Group[33] to urgently install a unified code for sustainable construction which we consider should apply universally within the construction industry. Voluntary schemes such as the EcoHomes Standard should become mainstreamed to guide higher construction standards. Commercial house builders must be required to follow the example of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation and aim for a "very good" or "excellent" standard of EcoHomes.

  4.19  On the basis of this we believe the Government should review the scope of the building regulations and expand them to cover issues such as water efficiency and to introduce a sustainable development duty within building regulations so they apply to construction waste and the wiser use of materials, including packaging.

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?

  4.20  English Nature believes that a key challenge is to provide growth in housing that is integrated with infrastructure, employment and essential facilities and services, including natural greenspace. There is a real risk that "sustainable communities" will become a monoculture of dormitory settlements where extensive private car use is necessary to reach jobs and services. Achieving the right public transport infrastructure is probably the single most critical factor in securing a sustainably functioning community.

  4.21  This infrastructure must be provided at the same time as the housing and not follow on after the housing is occupied. Funding is a challenge and financial planning is essential to ensure the various service providers (education, health, transport, utilities) have the capacity to deliver ahead of demand. The new planning system must be geared towards ensuring this joining up take place.

  4.22  Kate Barker recommends a system of taxing land value increases and the Government needs to explore this avenue of funding. Local authorities need to ring-fence finance accrued by local development taxes to support infrastructure to ensure that new communities function sustainably. We commend further development of Kate Barker's ideas of developing a Community Infrastructure Fund and using a Planning Gain supplement to fund sustainable infrastructure, including greenspace.

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?

  4.23  There is a general need to expand and connect the skills necessary to deliver sustainable development growth. The Egan Review was set up to consider this issue. English Nature sees deficiencies in the general understanding and awareness of the natural environment and how it can benefit the functioning and quality of development. Barker's conclusions tend to regard the environment as a constraint on development and to pitch one objective against the other. English Nature believes that these issues can be integrated but it is critical that all the agencies involved in the provision of growth have at their disposal both the resources and skills to achieve this in a sustainable way.


  5.1  The Barker Report contains a number of positive recommendations. However, should Government adopt these wholesale then there is a risk that it will sacrifice many positive aspects of its broad-based planning reform agenda. Foremost of these is the founding of a planning system based upon the principle of achieving sustainable development in an integrated way.

  5.2  Planning must, of course, recognise market signals but not be a slave to these. It must deliver the housing required but this has to be achieved through an integrated approach that recognises that long-term success rests upon sustaining the benefits that the environment provides. Government must maintain this perspective and not concede to any quick fixes which might threaten the achievement of a more sustainable future.

May 2004

26   Sustainable Communities: Building for the future-Office of the Deputy Prime Minister-5 February 2003. Back

27   Consultation Paper on Planning Policy Statement 1: Creating Sustainable Communities-Office of the Deputy Prime Minister March 2004. Back

28   Working with the grain of nature-A biodiversity strategy for England, Defra 2002. Back

29   Biodiversity the UK Action Plan, 1994. Back

30   DETR (May 1999) A Better Quality of Life-A Strategy for sustainable development for the United Kingdom. Back

31   most recently expressed in draft Planning Policy Statement 1: Creating Sustainable-Office of the Deputy Prime Minister March 2004. Back

32   Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (April 2004) Study into the Environmental Impacts of Increasing the Supply of Housing in the UK-ENTEC et alBack

33   Better buildings-better lives-Sustainable Buildings Task Group Report 2004. Back

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