Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  Q40  Mr Thomas: You mentioned earlier your six barriers to sustainable housing, and you said a little bit about how builders, at least in terms of their relationship with their investors, were reacting to this. But in your evidence to the Committee you point out that you could get to a very good standard, an eco-home standard, with only a 2% increase in the cost of construction. If that is the case, does it suggest that in fact builders are not interested in this at all? If they could get something that would be badged as an eco-home for a 2% increase in construction costs, surely they would be doing it already. We have all agreed now the market should be there.

  Mr King: You would think so, would you not? Some interesting evidence in this area is the example of the Government's Millennium Communities programme, and I understand that when the tender for the Telford Millennium Community was put out, at least ten of the major house builders bid furiously to win that contact, and that was building to the EcoHomes "Excellent" standard with additional resource efficiency targets on top. I am well aware that many of the house builders that bid for that piece of work are building elsewhere below the pass level of eco-homes as a matter of course, so there is actually no evidence that they are interested in applying higher standards as a matter of course, because they can.

  Q41  Mr Thomas: As part of your campaign, have you done any work with consumers, the people who buy houses, to see whether they would be prepared to buy them? When I go out on the streets, as we have been doing in the last couple of weeks, people just point to their roofs and say, "Why can't every new house have a solar panel? I would be happy to buy a house like that." If that is in the market, why are the builders not meeting that? Is it just conservatism within the industry? Is it a lack of efficiency in the industry? Or is it just cost cutting to the very last penny?

  Mr King: I believe it is very simple. I think they can sell the houses they put up, and they do not have to do anything more. The house builders told us one of our six barriers was the perception that customers did not want sustainable homes, and I have asked many a house builder how many consumers come in asking for unsustainable homes, and they do not seem to get many of those either. That is why through this campaign we have prioritised our engagement with the industry directly and with government, because, to be honest, it would seem logical to put equal weight on consumer demand, but it has become so obvious that this is a supply side driven industry, where consumers have no choice, have no say in the quality of the product that they effectively are forced to buy, that there is actually little point in channelling resources at this moment in time into trying to inspire greater consumer demand, because it would simply lead to greater disappointment.

  Q42  Mr Thomas: So if the builders do it because they can get away with it, why is the Government not doing more? Of your six barriers, what would you put as number one priority for the Government to try and tackle?

  Mr King: Rather naively, when I began the campaign, I thought that if the Government was serious about the sorts of sustainable construction standards that it referred to in the Sustainable Communities Plan, could it not simply require that new houses be built to those standards, and make it quite clear that houses not built to those standards would not be built?

  Q43  Mr Thomas: Is this building regulations or planning, or both?

  Mr King: It is both, and therein lies a problem. You have two systems, neither of which was designed to deliver sustainable homes. The building regulations still currently legally cannot address sustainability, which is why WWF has sponsored the Andrew Stunell Secure and Sustainable Buildings Bill, to make that amendment to the Buildings Act. There is a tremendous amount of confusion at all levels about the relative roles of planning and building regulations in determining the sustainability of homes. Coupled with that, you have an accepted wisdom that the building regulations can only be a regulatory floor, and even in those terms, I have heard the House Builders Federation describe the building regulations as something aspirational. We are in a situation where we do not currently have a legal or policy mechanism to require homes to be built to the standards that a growing number of bodies are realising we must be meeting.

  Q44  Mr Thomas: One final aspect of that is if we were to have that Bill passed, or building regulations to insist on certain qualities, eco-home standards or whatever, what about the other part of the supply side, that the suppliers of energy efficiency, materials, solar panels, whatever it may be? Is that being looked at in your campaign?

  Mr King: To some extent it is. We are also looking at some quite pragmatic initiatives such as the formation of buyers' clubs, which would enable developers to club together and bulk order some products and materials, which might be more difficult to obtain and more difficult to obtain at a competitive price, to actually ease supply and, from the supplier's point of view a consistent and clear demand helps them to increase supply. But I would emphasize, going back to your reference to the figure that we have put forward of achieving the sorts of improvements we are talking about, the no more than two per cent on the average build cost, that that does not take into account anything in terms of the economies of scale that could easily be achieved, nor does it take into account the whole life costings and the benefits of building to those higher standards, nor does it take into account the externalities, the remediation costs we will face down the road if we do not build to those standards now. None of those costs are factored into that already modest additional cost.

  Q45  Chairman: I may have misunderstood something you have said, but correct me if I am wrong. I think you said there was not any point in encouraging consumer demand for more environmentally sustainable houses because they would simply be disappointed when they tried to buy them. In the context of Joan Walley's question to the previous witness about the need for environmental education, public education, do you really think there is no point in encouraging people to want better? Do you really think that if they did want better, the market will not try to provide it?

  Mr King: I certainly believe that consumer awareness, education, is of course a positive thing. The point I was trying to make was simply that in a small campaign, with distinctly limited resources, we did not feel that that was the priority in terms of where we would achieve most impact, given the current situation. We actually think that consumer education is going to be increasingly important, and to that extent we look forward to progress with the home information pack that is currently being discussed as part of the Housing Bill, because we believe that if you look at the sort of transformation that has taken place in the white goods sector in terms of increased consumer awareness of the energy efficiency and so on of products, we can quite quickly see a shift in people's perceptions in relation to energy labelling of homes. We so support, of course, and we have throughout the campaign supported those sorts of initiatives. I was merely emphasizing where we have found that we must prioritise our efforts.

  Q46  Mr Francois: You mentioned one of the areas you have looked at was investor support, and that you had actually found some positive reactions from investors about being quite concerned about some of these issues. Do you by any chance have any figures or statistics on what percentage of house builders' costs is represented by section 106 agreements, where they give something back to the community in return for being allowed to build?

  Mr King: I do not have those figures to hand. I can probably find some further information and send that through.

  Mr Francois: If you could do that, that would be quite interesting. It would be interesting to know how much they are paying to give back to communities in return for planning permission. If you have any information on that at all, that would be helpful.

  Q47  Mr Chaytor: The priorities in your campaign are not working on consumers but working on the builders themselves and working to improve building regulations. You see these as the key drivers for change.

  Mr King: The way we approached this was that we saw some excellent examples of best practice out there. Unfortunately, they were very much the exception rather than the rule and we said how could you move a sector wholesale in this direction, not overnight but over a period of time, and we said surely there are three key constituencies that can influence this sector: there is the government as the regulator; there are the shareholders as investors; and there is the consumer. What we have done is prioritise our engagement with those different audiences over time. We are looking to plan and we are beginning to work much more closely with agencies such as CABE to bring the sustainability agenda much more into line with the broader quality of design agenda because we think that is also important. We do not foresee a time when people will necessarily rush to demand sustainable homes but what we do foresee is people becoming increasingly aware and increasingly wanting to demand better quality homes, which is what it amounts to because most of the environmental benefits yield economic and social benefits with them, and we believe simply that consumers deserve better quality homes.

  Q48  Mr Chaytor: Just a few moments ago it seems you were giving us a fairly negative, depressing assessment as to the possibility for change. Then you pre-empted the question I was going to ask about white goods because it does seem to me, as I look around the shops now, that there is an increasing acceptance of the energy efficiency rating on white goods and the price differential is actually coming down. Is this not the positive side that if you start from consumer education and awareness you can impact on the manufacturers and producers and ultimately costs come down because consumers see that if they pay £20 more for a fridge that is A-rated they will recoup that within a year or two in terms of energy savings? I suppose my question is really are you an optimist or a pessimist about the potential for driving change through consumer education and awareness?

  Mr King: I am an optimist but in the medium to longer term.

  Q49  Mr Chaytor: What is the difference between a long-term optimist and a pessimist?

  Mr King: Let me put it like this: I think for government to say we need not act because the market will take care of itself, the consumers will become better informed and they will demand a better quality product and thereafter the market will supply, is too optimistic. There are some interesting observations that can be made about consumers' behaviour in buying homes. Consumers generally spend an awful lot more time reading brochures and researching options when they are buying a new car than when they are buying a new home even though in most cases it is their single largest investment. Most often people are under enormous pressure to find a home and they are generally felt forced to accept what they can afford in a place they can afford it where they need to be based. I therefore think there are many other factors affecting the low level of choice that people currently experience and that it will take more than the provision of information to counteract that.

  Q50  Mr Chaytor: Can you tell us a bit about the report you did on the Thames Gateway and the concept of zero waste, zero energy because I am a little confused about this EcoHomes standard and Z2 standard. Could you clarify what you have said in the Thames Gateway report and what the different standards are to which you aspire.

  Mr King: One of the sources of inspiration for the more sustainable homes campaign was the BedZED development, that is to say the Beddington zero fossil energy development in Sutton. That was the first housing development to take on the challenge of how can we enable people to live a one-planet lifestyle. I must say it has not yet achieved it but it gets a lot closer to that than our traditional developments do. The important thing was that it has been recognised at BedZED as time has gone on that you can achieve a lot from improving the quality of the buildings but it is also vitally important to combine good-quality building with a well-designed environment because many of the environmental benefits that arise from people living at BedZED arise because they are inspired and it is made easy for them to live a much more sustainable lifestyle. It is easy for you if you live at BedZED to recycle your waste because you have got segregated bins under the sink. It is easy at BedZED to give up your car because there is a car club which is easy to use, it is cheap and the car is always clean and serviced for you, and therefore the incentive to give up your car is considerable. It is easy to consume renewable energy because there is an on-site CHP providing that from woodchip, and so on and so forth. That was our inspiration. However, we recognise that given the current situation of the mainstream house building industry we were not going to leap from today's practices to a BedZED type scenario overnight. We therefore looked to see whether there was something in between and the EcoHomes standard quite usefully provides a ladder in which house builders can achieve between a "fail", "pass", "good", "very good" or "excellent" rating. That gives house builders some positive encouragement in terms of getting on to that ladder and then hopefully progressing up it rather than saying it is all or nothing, you either have to leap to this particular advanced scenario or do not bother. This report aimed to look at the relative benefits of those two scenarios.

  Q51  Mr Chaytor: Does the EcoHomes standard apply to individual builders or individual buildings?

  Mr King: To buildings. It is an assessment of a building or a broader development.

  Q52  Mr Chaytor: Fine. Is this now used widely or is it used at all or is it just an aspiration?

  Mr King: It is used increasingly widely but nowhere near enough. Part of the appeal from a pragmatic point of view was that it was designed with an advisory group which contained house builders and therefore it was tested as it was developed as being acceptable to house builders. Again, what we have seen is that there has been very little take-up where there has not been the requirement to use it. Shining examples in this respect are the Housing Corporation which has incorporated the standard (admittedly so far at the lower levels) in its requirements for all social housing providers and English Partnerships which requires much higher levels, the sort of levels which we believe should be applied across the board. I referred earlier to the Millennium Communities example, and what is slightly disappointing is the evidence that where the requirement is set house builders are quite happy to jump over the bar but where the requirement is not set they have no inclination to do so.

  Q53  Mr Chaytor: Just one further thing in terms of establishing the bars. You have been involved in the Sustainable Buildings Task Group and you have been supporting heavily the Sustainable Buildings Bill. How confident are you that those are going to raise the level of the bar and are there specific things, recommendations of the Task Force or specific clauses in the Bill that you attach great importance to?

  Mr King: If I can take the Task Force first, broadly the WWF was very happy with the recommendations of that report, largely because they reiterated recommendations that we had made throughout this campaign in relation to regulations, planning and incentives information and also building on the EcoHomes standard to propose a Code for Sustainable Buildings. My big worry is that what is already a somewhat limited initiative in terms of the Code for Sustainable Buildings (which could only apply if adopted as recommended) would still only apply to government contracts and could be further watered down. I begin to hear rumblings within ODPM that suggest that perhaps that recommendation could be further watered down. To be honest, if it is watered down at all from the current recommendations will have nothing better than the status quo.

  Q54  Mr Chaytor: This is the issue of public procurement?

  Mr King: It is an initiative which recommends that as a condition of doing business in relation to government, house builders must achieve a code of sustainable building very much based on the EcoHomes system.

  Q55  Mr Chaytor: Which is higher than current building regulations for private houses?

  Mr King: Yes.

  Q56  Mr Francois: Mr King, I declare an interest in that my constituency in Essex is not actually under the Thames Gateway area but it abuts it just to the north so I know a little bit about the area. There are issues here about the design standards to which you build homes but I think there are also issues about the actual sale of the building itself because that obviously has implications for infrastructure as well. There is one proposal within Thames Gateway to build 10,000 homes in a very concentrated area in and around a place called Purfleet. In your opinion, is there any way in which you can cram houses in on that scale and still be sustainable?

  Mr King: I confess I am not especially familiar with the particular site although I am aware of it. I think there is something of a myth about the evils of high density. Generally people have a gut reaction against high-density development and they conjure all sorts of alarming images in their minds. However, if you show people pictures of Cornish fishing villages or Georgian terraces or the centre of Barcelona, it can be appreciated that high density does not have to mean that sort of negative environment. Clearly what you can achieve with high density is much greater amenity and "walkability", which has all sorts of impacts in reducing the need for transport and so on to get around. Needless to say, however, the environmental benefits that come with density have got to be balanced with the design issues surrounding broader social sustainability, and what we cannot be doing is building communities which achieve low environmental impact if they are not places people want to live in. That is why in theory a vision of sustainable communities, which looks at these things in the round, and as was to some extent defined in the terms of the Egan Review where amongst other things they put an emphasis on enabling people to live a more sustainable lifestyle, is important.

  Q57  Mr Francois: I accept part of what you say about density, and I think there is a very valid debate to be had about that, but there are also issues of scale and the infrastructure you need. Are you not concerned about the ability to build on the scale of effectively one development of 10,000 houses unless you have the entire infrastructure mapped out to go with it?

  Mr King: Absolutely, and one of the concerns we have is the extent to which government may not be being sufficiently joined up in terms of budgeting for that infrastructure with the housing plans, in transport in particular. We are actually involved at the moment with a proposal for a development in the Thames Gateway and we are working in partnership with BioRegional, which was the catalyst for BedZED, called Z2 which is the real manifestation of that hypothetical scenario aiming to achieve zero carbon and zero waste on a development of 2,000 homes (homes for 5,000 people) and the key point we will be seeking to get across in our discussions with government about that is that it is infrastructure and services led and that comes before even the factors surrounding the design of the homes.

  Q58  Mr Chaytor: Very briefly if I could ask a short question and short answer. Following Mark's question, does WWF have a view about tall buildings? If you are opposed to building outwards, is it not inevitably logical that you should support building upwards?

  Mr King: Entirely possibly. I cannot say that we have a policy for or against tall buildings.

  Q59  Mr Chaytor: Should you not be having a policy for tall buildings as a means of dealing with the density problem and blocking the continuous spreading outwards and eating up of green belt?

  Mr King: I would be wary of being prescriptive about design issues, which I think really have to be taken into account in the relevant local context. The sorts of standards that we are advocating can be applied nationally but they need to be applied sensitively in a local context and to start proposing that a sustainable building has to look like a tower block or it has to look like BedZED is counter-productive.

  Mr Chaytor: It could be a solution to the Purfleet problem though, could it not?

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