Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 31 - 39)



  Q31  Chairman: Good afternoon, Mr King. I know you were listening intently throughout that evidence. You will have heard that we are in fact coming on to the question of the construction of the buildings. This is something I know you have done a lot of work on. Before we come on to that, can you just give us a thumbnail sketch of your overall impression of the Barker Review.

  Mr King: Thank you very much for inviting me along to give some evidence today. Overall, I think Barker just looks at one bit of the picture, and I think, in fairness, in a sense, she acknowledges that and she says that there is a much wider government policy debate about sustainable communities, and that she has chosen in her final report to focus on housing supply. Unfortunately, I see no evidence in government that there is going to be any kind of serious counterbalance on the other aspects of achieving sustainable development or indeed sustainable communities, and therefore, what I fear is that one part of the argument is going to become the whole debate and it is going to be swallowed wholesale. I do not claim to be a planning expert, unlike the previous witness, but broadly, my impressions concur with the evidence that he has given. I think there are very few redeeming features in Barker's recommendations. Again, I would reiterate the possible benefits of some sort of planning gain tax, and I also share some of her concerns about house builders when she puts a shot across the bows in terms of a potential Office of Fair Trading review, given the very poor customer satisfaction levels that the industry seems to experience. Other than that, I do not think I can say much more.

  Q32  Gregory Barker: I am going to ask you a similar question to the one we asked Friends of the Earth. What is your view of the current plethora of public documents, such as the Sustainable Communities Plan, the Draft Planning Policy Statement 1 and the Sustainable Development Strategy? Are they enough to encourage and direct sustainable housing?

  Mr King: I think, in a way, they are probably not enough and almost too much at the same time, because the big issue is that there is a tremendous amount of confusion. There is a lot of confusion about what the Government is really serious about delivering. There is a top line of rhetoric that runs through the Sustainable Communities Plan that it would be hard to disagree with, taken at face value, but actually, since that policy document was produced, there has been precious little action to deliver anything. There have been a lot of government reviews and consultation undertaken, but not a lot has moved on. Coming to planning, as I did, as a relative layman, I think the planning system is somewhat confusing, and I do not think that that is being particularly clarified at the moment. Unfortunately, that seems to fuel the view that the planning therefore gets in the way of a sensible delivery and supply of much needed new housing, and I think that is the problem with Barker really, that planning is really seen as an obstacle to be somehow got rid of.

  Q33  Gregory Barker: WWF have been running a sustainable homes campaign for over a year and a half now. Why did you, an organisation that most people associate with pandas and nature conservation, get involved in something so seemingly outside your remit?

  Mr King: If I can take the big picture for a moment, the WWF produces a report called the Living Planet Report, every couple of years, and that report is a sort of health check on the planet. There are two real headlines. One is that it shows that species numbers have declined by about 30% in the last 30 years, which is pretty alarming, particularly if you are in our line of business, and there is another graph which shows the rising tide of human consumption and pollution. There is a neat summary of that analysis, which says that if everybody on the planet were living and consuming natural resources and polluting the environment at the same rate as we are today in the UK, we would need three planets to support us. If you look at that global challenge, and you relate it to the UK, and you say what are our sustainable development priorities, housing has a huge role to play. It has a huge role to play in terms of some very direct impacts. Twenty-seven per cent of our carbon dioxide emissions contributing to climate change come from our homes. If you look at timber use in this country, 55% goes into housing, and considering there is a major problem in terms of unsustainable deforestation around the world, you have to look at where some of these big threats emanate from. I could say the same in terms of the impact of our housing and our homes in terms of the use of fresh water resources, in terms of the use of toxic chemicals and so on and so forth. The other thing is to say that our homes actually have a vast indirect impact, because our homes determine the sorts of lives that we lead. Our homes determine how we travel, how we get about, whether or not we are in close proximity to public transport or amenities and all the other things which make up the rest of our environmental impacts. For that reason, what we really sought to do was to take some of our global priorities and relate them to people's daily lives and,   if you pardon the pun, bring sustainable development home to people.

  Q34  Gregory Barker: That campaign has been running now for a year and a half. Has it had any impact or have you seen any sign that people are changing the way that new homes are starting to be built?

  Mr King: We think it has had an impact.

  Q35  Gregory Barker: How do you measure that?

  Mr King: At the beginning we conducted a stakeholder consultation exercise. It took about nine months and involved about 350 different organisations, including planners, local authorities, house builders, and all sorts of interests. We said "What are the barriers to mainstream sustainability in housing?" We came up with what were perceived to be six key barriers to mainstream sustainability. Therefore what we have done is develop strategies to address each of those, and we have worked in partnership with others to try and have some impact in those areas. I can give you a couple of examples. One of the perceptions that was widely held amongst the house builders was that their investors, their shareholders, really had no interest in sustainability; they were just interested in a return, and a high return at that. We suspected that that attitude was changing, so we worked with Insight Investment, which is the asset management arm of Halifax Bank of Scotland, which is a major shareholder in all of the publicly listed house builders, and we benchmarked all the house builders in terms of their sustainability policies and performance, and ranked them and published the results. That has had some very interesting results in terms of the dialogue that we have had with the house builders since. There is some real evidence that house builders are beginning to sit up and take these issues more seriously, partly because they see their investors taking these issues much more seriously. On other levels, we have been closely involved in government debates and policy development, particularly around the Sustainable Communities Plan, and we were in fact the only NGO that was invited to participate in the Egan Review of Skills for sustainable communities and more recently in the Sustainable Buildings Task Group. We believe we could take a little bit of the credit perhaps for that being set up. It was announced at the Better Building Summit following considerable lobbying on behalf of the WWF, to say that the government really needs to follow up the   rhetoric of its commitment to sustainable construction standards in the Communities Plan with some action and really setting some standards for better construction in the Thames Gateway and the other growth areas. So across the different barriers that we have tackled, we believe that we are actually making some headway. However, the most frustrating area, I have to say, is the extent to which the Government is yet to fundamentally take some action rather than just garnering further advice.

  Q36  Mr Thomas: We all know that the Barker report was published to great acclaim and accepted by the Chancellor pretty quickly. There was, however, the curious incident of the report that was not Barker, and the report that did not get such publicity, and that is the Defra report of course, on the effect of such a report on the environment. Do you as an organisation concur with what that report has to say, and how do you assess its own scenario-based assessment of what could be happening if Barker goes ahead?

  Mr King: Probably like many people and many organisations, we only discovered that report relatively late in the day, because it did slip out somewhat quietly, as you observed.

  Q37  Mr Thomas: Would you hazard a guess as to why that might be?

  Mr King: I could not imagine. I think that report acknowledges that it was done quite quickly. It is very much a beginning and I think that report does emphasize actually how much more needs to be done, which goes back to my previous point really about redressing the balance, the extent of work that needs to be done on the other side of the equation from Barker. I think there are things in it that we would certainly support. There are some recommendations regarding economic instruments, incentives for favouring development on brownfield land and some disincentives for developing on greenfield land that we would obviously concur with.

  Q38  Mr Thomas: As well as the recommendations, what about the actual assessment that it makes? It takes different scenarios and says this would be the environmental impact or whatever. Do those chime with you as being realistic assessments? Are they over-optimistic or too pessimistic about what will happen if we do have these house building scenarios taking place?

  Mr King: I think the fundamental problem is that essentially the report under-estimates the impact, and that is because there is an inclination to look at those impacts nationally, and I think where the real damage will be done is when you map the growth areas regionally and you see the disproportionate impact on areas where you actually have very scarce resources such as water, for example.

  Q39  Mr Thomas: What about the report being quickly done? Is there anything that is obviously missing from that report? You have just mentioned the regional dimension. That should be there. Is there anything else specific around environmental impacts that should be looked at?

  Mr King: Really, as the report itself recognises, a lot more needs to be done in terms of anticipating the future effects of climate change or flooding that is related to that, the environmental impact across the board. It shows that a lot more needs to be done.

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