Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence


Supplementary memorandum from the Environment Agency


1.  The Communities Plan was published before the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive came into force and is probably not covered by the requirements anyway. Would the Environment Agency favour an SEA or some other form of environmental impact assessment being carried out on the whole of the Communities Plan?

  The Environment Agency believes that strategically planned growth as proposed in the Sustainable Communities Plan is preferable to piecemeal development that might otherwise occur. A planned approach provides an opportunity to address environmental concerns that accompany development and allows a strategic approach to addressing issues such as water resources and flood risk.

  A Sustainability Appraisal or Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the Sustainable Communities Plan would be of limited benefit because the document does not contain the detail to undertake the necessary environmental analysis. We look to Sustainability Appraisals, incorporating SEAs, at a regional level to play this scrutiny role. Regional Spatial Strategies will be subject to, and will benefit from a Sustainability Appraisal and full Strategic Environmental Assessment. The Environment Agency will engage with and contribute to this process.

2.  You state in your memorandum that you expect the new Sustainable Development Strategy to underpin all Government policies—including housing—and ensure environmental aspects are balanced with social and economic goals. The Committee has seen little evidence of this happening with the current strategy—how realistic of you is it to expect a significant change under the revised strategy?

  Our memorandum stated that we expect the Sustainable Development Strategy to ensure that environmental aspects are balanced with social and economic goals when Government formulates policy. The proposal for an "overarching national strategy to ensure environment is at the heart of any building programme," can be delivered through the proper implementation of existing national policies, such as the Code for Sustainable Buildings, Building Regulations, PPS1, PPG3, and Sustainable Development duties.

3.  The Agency has, like many others, criticised the language of PPS1 as being too weak. How should it be strengthened? and is it realistic to expect the Government to do so?

  The Environment Agency welcomed the key messages of draft PPS1 and strongly supports the adoption of a statutory sustainable development objective for planning. In responding to the consultation, we were concerned that emphasis was being given to achieving economic and social aims over environmental considerations. Such an approach, if adopted, could be used to justify development that meets the economic needs of the present generation while causing short-term environmental damage and failing to satisfy the long-term social and environmental needs of future generations. We believe that growth and development should be designed not to impact adversely on social equity and the environment.

  The Environment Agency believes that PPS1 should be accompanied by a Sustainable Development and Planning best practice guide. This guide should include aspects of sustainable housing that cannot be directly influenced through Building Regulations but that can be promoted through the planning system. Examples include:

    —  improved water efficiency in development layout;

    —  sustainable drainage;

    —  reduction in the use of materials during the construction process;

    —  renewable energy generation;

    —  facilities for sustainable waste management; and

    —  flood resilience.

  PPS1 could be strengthened by addressing the issue of resource efficiency and infrastructure requirements of development. Government requirement for Sustainability Appraisal of Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks, together with a duty on plan-making bodies to promote sustainable development, provide an opportunity to assess resource efficiency. Merely ensuring that sufficient infrastructure is planned to serve the development does not encourage the prudent use of resources, and this should be given priority.

4.  You are statutory consultees when it comes to planning. According to your memorandum you made 1,047 sustained objections to planning applications on the grounds of flood risk in 2002-03. Of these, 221 went against the Agency. That is 21%—does this mean that permission was granted for developments that would be at flood risk or increase flood risk for others? Is this acceptable?

  The Environment Agency is a statutory consultee for much of the development plan process and for some types of planning application. We are not a statutory consultee for planning applications where there is a risk of flooding. However, in Making Space for Water, the Government's current consultation on its strategy for flood risk management, the Government indicates that; "the ODPM intends to consult on extending the Agency's statutory consultee role to all planning applications in areas notified by the Environment Agency as at risk of flooding or likely to add to flood risk" (para 7.11). The Environment Agency welcomes this intention.

  The Environment Agency is concerned about the level of decisions made against our advice and we are in discussion with Government to remedy the situation. We believe we should be made a statutory consultee on flood risk. In response to the ODPM's review of PPG25 Development and Flood Risk, we believe that the guidance should be revised as there are specific instances of Local Planning Authorities not adequately following some of the advice within it. In particular, Local Planning Authorities are:

    —  failing to request flood risk assessments prior to consulting the Environment Agency—the lack of a flood risk assessment now accounts for 51% of all Agency sustained objections despite advice in PPG25; and

    —  failing to re-consult the Environment Agency when granting planning permission against the Agency's advice, as stipulated in PPG25.

  During 2003-04 we were consulted on 52,379 planning applications. Of these 22,067 required consideration on flood risk grounds and the Environment Agency objected to 5,077. Local Planning authorities are under no duty to inform us of the outcome of our objections, and as a result we only know the outcome of 2,811 (55%). Nearly 1,000 of these objections were resolved through negotiation before the Local Planning Authority made a formal decision, and over 400 were withdrawn by the applicant before a decision was made. Of the remaining 1,437 sustained objections where we know the result, 323 (22.5%) were permitted by Local Planning Authorities contrary to our advice.

  We believe all planning application forms should promote the submission of a flood risk assessment before the application is submitted. We are concerned that the reconsultation procedure outlined in PPG25 is not generally being followed. In 2003-04 only 11.9% of permissions granted against Agency advice were the subject of reconsultation. This means that the Environment Agency cannot have the opportunity to influence planning conditions to mitigate flood risk. The Agency consider that there is a persistent core of decisions being approved contrary to our advice, including a small but significant number of major developments. Of the 5,077 objections we made 214 of these were on major cases (119 were for housing). We know the decision for 2,811 cases of which 21 were major cases granted permission contrary to Agency advice. We believe that the Government should put in place a standing planning Direction to call in applications which would have significant environmental impact where a Local Planning Authority proposes to grant permission contrary to the Environment Agency's advice.

5.  You have called for the energy and water efficiency of developments to become material planning considerations. How likely is this to happen, particularly in the South East, given the pressures for increasing house building rates over the next 15 years?

  The Environment Agency believes that Regional Planning Bodies and Local Planning Authorities should consider the environmental capacity of an area when developing their plan policies and making development control decisions. We believe that the review of PPS1 should specify that the environmental capacity of an area is a legitimate planning concern and a reason to refuse development. We are aware that planning decisions are based on social and economic grounds as well as on environmental considerations, but it is important that the environment is given equal weight in decision making.

6.  What are the implications of the increase in housing in the South East for waste management? Will we have the capacity to deal with the waste generated by the new households?

  Levels of municipal waste have increased 2-4% a year since 1995-96. It is estimated that the expected number of new homes in the next 20 years would increase municipal waste by almost a third.

  The Environment Agency is conducting research to assess better the regional impacts on waste management in the South East, and will use this information to inform future policy development. Current estimates are that if the trend continues, quantities in the South East could grow by 67% to 2031 (from 4.1 million tonnes/yr to 7 million tonnes/yr). The anticipated 800,000 new homes would generate an estimated further 1.7 million tonnes of municipal waste per year.

  Existing waste handling facilities have a limited life expectancy. Developing significant new waste facilities will be necessary. The Environment Agency believes that new development should be designed to promote and maximise recycling levels. It should also include new waste management facilities. Spatial strategies at county or regional level should include sites and facilities for the modern management of waste.

7.  We have had the issue of the environmental implications of housing growth on the South East highlighted recently. You yourselves have called the plan to build 800,000 houses in the South East an "environmental time-bomb"; EERA (East of England Regional Assembly) published the environmental assessment (SEA) of its Regional Spatial Strategy, which concluded the strategy was "intrinsically damaging to many aspects of the environment and quality of life". Is there really the capacity to absorb all this new build in the South East?

  Development on the proposed scale will bring environmental pressures unless the environment is fully considered as early as possible in the planning process. Our recent statement said "action [was] needed now" to avoid the environmental pressures of 800,000 new homes in the South East. It continued: "growing development, climate change and the limited availability of water, waste disposal capacity and other environmental resources means that the quality of our future environment cannot be taken for granted".

  The ability of the South East to absorb this new build will depend on early consideration of environmental issues and the adoption of measures such as the Code for Sustainable Buildings which will reduce the demand on natural resources. A further factor will be the location of new houses. Issues such as flood defence, water resources and water quality are locationally specific and impacts cannot be estimated until further detail is available.

The SEA also stated that though it was not within the remit of the report to consider the option they "suspect that growth would be far less environmentally damaging in many other parts of the UK, especially the North of England". Is this a view you might support?

  We have not taken a view on whether growth should be directed to the North or South of England. A North versus South argument will not necessarily deliver the best for the environment. Our view is that all new housing should be located towards areas where environmental risk is reduced, have high standards of environmental performance and make better use of limited resources such as energy and water.

8.  The Agency has been quoted as stating that in your view we are close to reaching our environmental limits in the South East. Have you expressed these concerns direct to the Government? What has been their response?

  We have not stated the view that we are close to reaching our environmental limits in the South East. The Environment Agency has stated "action [is] needed now" to avoid the environmental pressures of 800,000 new homes in the South East. Nationally, we are in discussion with Government as to the standards and action that needs to be taken in advance of new development taking place. Our regional offices are fully engaged in the regional planning process to ensure environmental issues are addressed in Regional Spatial Strategies.


  These following questions are addressed to Sir John Harman in view of his role as co-chair of the Sustainable Buildings Task Force

9.  The Committee has seen little evidence so far that the house building industry, on the whole, is particularly receptive to improving its environmental performance unless it is forced to. Have you come to a different conclusion?

  The Building Regulations play a very important role in setting minimum standards for the house building industry. They must be designed and enforced to deliver the most practicable contribution to environmental performance possible. The Sustainable Buildings Task Group (SBTG) recognised the importance of the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Bill. Its subsequent enactment has allowed sustainable development considerations to be included in Building Regulations. The SBTG called for these enabling powers to be activated as soon as possible and for the Government to set out promptly how it intends to ensure this process is completed.

  Encouraging the house building industry beyond this base level of regulation was the principal challenge for the SBTG. The SBTG reported that the construction, development and house building industries have not yet subscribed to much of the sustainability agenda, and have not been persuaded of its long-term benefits. That said, the Task Group was confident that the industry is capable of rising to the challenge of delivering buildings which will be socially, environmentally and economically sustainable, and saw the Code for Sustainable Buildings as the principal vehicle to initiate this shift.

  The SBTG acknowledged that some public sector clients are already building well above minimum standards, and recommended that the practice should be standardised across the public sector through the Code for Sustainable Buildings. By leading in this way Government would demonstrate that building to higher standards is not only economically possible, but can bring cost-savings to themselves, clients and the public whilst also sending a clear signal to industry of the future direction of regulation.

  Therefore, while I agree that the sector may not be "receptive" as a whole, I believe that, with the right leadership, it is capable of delivering much higher environmental performance.

10.  In its response to the Task Force's Recommendations the Government did state that the cost of implementation of the Code, and its flexibility, would be major considerations. When we do see the Code published, do you think it will be as stringent as you would hope?

  Cost will certainly be a factor in the widespread adoption of the Code. It was the view of the SBTG that costs need to be considered in the context of the improved quality that will also be delivered through higher standards. Indeed, the Code should develop as a proxy for quality and high standards generally. Initial costs of adopting higher standards will decrease sharply from current estimates as volume increases. And on a whole life basis, the additional cost is far outweighed by benefit.

  Where additional costs are involved, they need to be seen as an investment in the future—they mean lower running costs for occupiers of buildings, and a reduced need for expensive corrective measures such as those required to improve thermal efficiency or flood resistance.

  The SBTG stated that they expected public clients to adopt a minimum Code level comparable to Eco-homes "Very Good". Steps both below and above this level were envisaged, at least in the first instance.

11.  Are skills an issue in your view? Does the housebuilding industry have the skills to meet the targets you would like to see set through a Code for Sustainable Buildings?

  The SBTG recognised that the skills base of the construction sector could be a challenge to delivering improved standards. The Task Group welcomed Sir John Egan's proposal for the National Skills Centre for Sustainable Communities. The fact that public sector clients, such as the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships, regularly attract tenders for projects which demand high environmental standards suggests that if there is an issue it is more to do with design capacity than the basic ability to build to higher standards.

12.  Sir John Egan told us in evidence that in his view it would be possible for the construction industry to achieve sustainability, particularly in the sourcing of materials, within eight years. Would you agree with this?

  In view of this is the 10% target for reclaimed, re-used and recycled materials set by the task force for 2005 unambitious?

  It depends on how stringently you wish to define sustainability in construction. I do not have any evidence on which to evaluate Sir John Egan's estimate but I have no doubt that the industry can make huge improvements in the environmental efficiency of buildings within that timescale. There is a balance between early ambition and industry buy-in. The 10% target was reached through agreement of the wide membership of the SBTG. The figure was considered a suitable starting point through which to engage with the industry and initiate progress while providing some "stretch". It was to be a new requirement made of the industry through Building Regulations. A higher level would be represented in the various levels of the Code, and both levels would be raised over time with advance notification to industry to allow them time to prepare and respond.

13.  The Government is strongly promoting the use of Modern Methods of Construction. How do you see this working within the Code for Sustainable Buildings?

Do you have any reservations about the environmental implications of a significant shift to using MMC for housing?

  There are reported economic and waste management benefits of Modern Methods of Construction. There needs to be more comprehensive research on the full range of environmental impacts, so that environmental sustainability is properly incorporated in the process. The Environment Agency is commissioning some research in this area and will report its findings in 2005.

  November 2004

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