Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 67 - 76)



  Q67  Chairman: Good afternoon, you have been very patient but welcome to the Committee. Thank you for coming along and also for your written memorandum. Along with the other witnesses we have heard this afternoon, you have been highly critical of the Barker Review. You have even produced your own research A Basis on Which to Build? where you set out to refute the conclusion that there is a need to build any of these houses anyway. Where do you think Barker, and by extension the ODPM, has gone wrong and why have they gone so wrong?

  Mr Sinden: If I can kick off on that. The report and the critique to which you refer was the report we commissioned between the publication of the interim and final report by the Barker Review team. There were some important assumptions that needed to be unpacked and explored within the interim report and the terms of reference given in order to inform the further analysis that we hope to see carried on by the Barker team prior to the publication of the final report. Those assumptions related essentially not just to the gap and the flaw that has already been identified this afternoon, which is the gap in terms of the understanding in the Barker Review of the environmental and planning frameworks within which the housing supply issues had been addressed, but also a weakness in the supply-side focus of the review. We felt that there was a need to address demand-side considerations to do with the housing market. To be fair, the Treasury had also thought this was necessary when they commissioned David Miles to look at an element of the mortgage market, which was the lack of attractiveness apparently within the UK market of long-term fixed rate mortgages compared with other European countries. However, we felt that the exclusive focus of Barker on supply-side considerations was likely to distort the recommendations that she would be arriving at and our fears were proven correct in that sense. We feel, in common with earlier witnesses, that the inquiry's terms of reference and its limited remit was bound to come up with distorted, one-sided recommendations on the issue of housing supply and we in vain, as it turned out, sought to draw attention to that risk prior to the publication of the final report. It is encouraging to us, however, that increasingly it seems that commentators on the house market and those directly involved in housing are addressing the very serious flaws and questions that we raised in that connection. Just to repeat the two or three main arguments that we sought to deploy at that stage. One was the issue of whether or not we had an overall shortage of housing in the UK, it was clear from the Census data that was published in Kate Barker's interim report that the answer to that question was not quite as straightforward as she and the Treasury and ODPM had been assuming. In fact, we have seen an increase, according to the Census data, in the excess of dwellings over households between 1991 and 2001 from 2.4% to 3.7% across the whole country and that is an increase in over-provision that has been experienced across the country in every region in England. The balances remain more or less the same in London but in other parts of the country there has been a growth in the number of dwellings over households. Any short-term impact in terms of house price inflation and house price volatility, we argued, are as much, if not more, to do with demand side factors such as people's willingness to pay for housing and their treatment of housing as a good investment than issues to do with shortages in supply. In connection with that argument we drew attention to the fact that private sector house building rates have remained more or less constant over the past few decades at around 120,000 dwellings per annum to 130,000 dwellings per annum, and in fact over the past two to three years private house build rates have been creeping up. We felt that on those grounds alone there was a need to question the assumptions.

  Q68  Chairman: Did I notice earlier this month that the Halifax produced a report saying there was a short-fall of half a million houses and would not that analysis be supported by the continuing rise in house prices? There seems to be evidence to the contrary of what you are saying.

  Mr Sinden: This is the problem—that conflicting messages are being put out by different commentators on the market. For example, I would also draw attention to the comments made by the Governor of the Bank of England earlier this week which were suggesting that there are very important demand side factors such as levels of interest rates that are actually going to affect demand and therefore in turn affect house prices. Therefore the paradox that we drew attention to in the report A Basis on Which to Build? was this idea that if indeed affordability levels do improve over the coming years with a reduced rate of house price inflation or indeed a reduction in house prices, there is every likelihood that, in terms of the analysis that Barker applies to the housing market, we may need to place restrictions on further supply in order to bring affordability levels up to the desired level that Kate Barker and the Treasury team seem to propose, which was the affordability levels of the late 1980s. There was a perversity in the methodology and approach that was being applied by the Barker Review team that we fear may well be shown to be a serious flaw if in the analysis changes in house price patterns do come to bear over the coming months.

  Mr Oliver: There is also one other point there which is that sometimes there is a confusion between need and demand. I think it is quite easy to look at demand and say we are not meeting it because demand in housing is very elastic, both in terms of size and indeed in how many houses people want at one end of the spectrum. Some of the criticisms of the planning system have focused on not providing the number of houses which matches the number of households forming, and this is a process we went through with the Government five or six years ago where the Government came to an understanding (which was very much an understanding we shared) that household formation, never mind household projections, is not necessarily a proxy for housing need and that is where the role of the planning system comes in. There is a distinction there which is sometimes blurred unhelpfully.

  Q69  Mr Savidge: In your memorandum you state that with the Sustainable Communities Plan the Government risks abandoning its commitment to urban renewal. What did you mean by that?

  Mr Oliver: I think we felt that the Communities Plan focuses overwhelmingly, as has been pointed out already by other witnesses, on expansion in four particular growth areas in the wider South East of England. At the time that the plan came out we set a series of five "sustainability" tests of the plan and we said that we would be watching to see what happens. One year on, in February this year, we had another look at those. Broadly they were: was the plan and were the numbers of houses and other things in the plan subject to independent testing; would it make better use of land than in previous years; would it raise brown field targets and put urban renaissance first; would it happen within a coherent framework of regional policy; and would it ensure an adequate degree of public engagement in the decisions being made at all levels? Our analysis one year on has been that it has failed on all five of those so far. One of the biggest problems is that the Government has been highlighting what it sees as a need for enormous expansion, largely on green field sites. For example, the plans for the Milton Keynes/South Midlands growth area, including delineating site areas for new special delivery vehicles which are not accountable to local populations (the Urban Development Corporation in West Northamptonshire for example) are forging ahead before the public examination into the proposals had finished never mind reported. One of our anxieties is that there is a lot of urban potential and potential for better use of land through higher densities and so on which is simply not being looked at because the targets are being driven ahead regardless of the wider public process. What that fundamentally comes down to is that the Government, despite having committed itself in PPG3 which we strongly support, to a brown field first/urban first approach with green field coming last, is putting green field onto the front of some of its plans in the growth areas.

  Mr Savidge: Taking that point about green field being put on the front-end and talking about targets, you suggest that targets for new housing in the Thames Gateway could be more than doubled without requiring any encroachment on green field land. How would you respond to the criticism that you are living up to your title rather too literally as the Campaign to Protect Rural England in that you are trying to protect the green belt at any cost? Is that really taking sufficient account of whether that is a sensible approach or what the quality of life would be like in the urban areas?

  Q70  Chairman: Can I add to that. How is it compatible with your analysis that we do not need to build houses anyway?

  Mr Oliver: That is a very fair point. There are a number of aspects to this. If we can take the aspect of where the Thames Gateway fits into the wider strategy of the Communities Plan, and indeed nationally, first. If there is a need for large-scale house building and expansion in the wider South East, we see the main opportunity for that to happen, whilst delivering environmental and social gains at the same time, is within certain parts of the Thames Gateway. So if there is to be a growth area, essentially we are interested in maximising the urban capacity to absorb that growth. We think the best place for that is closest to London and we make a distinction between the eastern fringes of the Thames Gateway and those which are within Greater London and on the edge of it. We believe that that area could absorb a considerable amount of development pressure which would otherwise be threatening countryside in less sustainable locations elsewhere without the benefits in terms of remediating derelict land and underused land. We have never been an organisation which says that there should be no green field development. We have been actively involved in the design of fairly major green field extensions, for example on the edge of Ashford in Kent which is another of the growth areas in the past, and we continue to be involved in that. Therefore we do not take an absolutist line. What we have with the Thames Gateway is simply if you look at the analyses that have been done of the urban capacity they are based on outdated surveys when people were not used to doing this and when they did not have to do it pre-PPG3. They are based on outdated assumptions about density and use of land partly in relation to design, partly in relation to what the market will bear and partly in relation to national planning policy. Therefore, an awful lot more potential has been revealed than was hitherto understood to exist and our own analysis from our people who are working directly on this on the ground in the Thames Gateway is that the capacity which had been identified tentatively could be doubled within the brown field area. There may be in specific cases issues for example to do with the biodiversity value of brown field sites, we accept that, but in principle we are taking the government at its word and saying, "Okay, urban renaissance is what you want; here's the potential." To come to your question, Chairman, about how that fits in with our analysis of Barker's conclusions about numbers, it is a perfectly fair criticism. As we have said, we do not accept there is necessarily a need for a huge increase in house building but the housing that is going to be built in the wider South East in the next two or three decades we believe would be best concentrated on previously developed urban land largely within the Thames Gateway. Do not forget that the M11 corridor also includes quite large tracts of derelict land which are currently not being looked at very closely because the emphasis is very much on green field development in the London/Stansted/Peterborough corridor.

  Q71  Chairman: Can I ask you very briefly for your thoughts on what we were hearing earlier about the marketisation of the planning system. Do you share the concerns that have been expressed?

  Mr Sinden: I think we do in relation to the Treasury's approach to planning. The point that we would add to the analysis that you have heard so far, which relates also to the point that was made about the increasing focus of the ODPM on delivery of sustainable communities, concerns to the wider role of the planning system as a tool of environmental policy, which we believe has been a driving force of developments in planning policy since the 1990 Environment White Paper. In fact, the last big Planning Act which shortly followed that and the ensuing policy changes were strongly influenced by the environmental agenda set out in the Environment White Paper and that was an agenda that we strongly welcomed. We believe it recognised the role of planning as an environmental policy tool. What we are seeing now with the ODPM is, if you like, a loss of that perspective on the wider role of the planning system. This may be something to do with the way in which departmental structures have changed in the intervening period and the crucial fact, from our point of view, that the environmental policy responsibilities are now separated off from the ODPM. I think it is fair to say that whilst we have already talked this afternoon about the Defra-commissed report on the environmental implications of Barker, officials in that Department would recognise that they have not had a significant impact on the housing debate so far. We wait to see what that Department is going to do with that study in terms of influencing the Government's broader response to that agenda. That will be the additional point I would add. We are also deeply concerned, as is Friends of the Earth, about the proposals in Barker which essentially are a negation of the fundamental principles of the planning system. We believe these proposals could, if we are not careful, bring the system down and create all sorts of confusion as well as public opposition on the ground to necessary development. The CPRE has always recognised that the planning system is there to ensure that we have necessary development in the right place at the right time. Our fear is that if we move away from the established principles of the system this will also frustrate the achievement of the development side of the sustainable development agenda, if you like.

  Q72  Mr Chaytor: Just two quick points. In respect of the figures from the Census you quoted at the very beginning about the increase in surplus stock over a ten-year period, surely this is irrelevant because what matters is the distribution of that increase? I can go 15 minutes from my constituency and buy a terraced house for £20,000. In the centre of London it would be 25 or 40 times that price so surely the statistics have to be looked at on a regional basis not a national basis? Are there any figures that you have about levels of surplus stock on a regional basis?

  Mr Sinden: You are absolutely right, not only regional, but sub-regional and very local markets need to be looked at, but the point we were drawing attention to very simply was that the Census data, including at a regional level—and both the Barker Report and our analysis reproduced the regional data—shows an increase in the excess in every region.

  Q73  Mr Chaytor: Even in the South East?

  Mr Sinden: Even in the South East.

  Q74  Mr Chaytor: The Barker Report's figures contain an increase in the excess?

  Mr Sinden: Yes, the interim report does. The only region which did not experience or show an increase in the excess over that period was London, where the excess remained more or less at the same level.

  Q75  Mr Chaytor: Is the CPRE equally as timid as the WWF in accepting that a new generation of tower blocks must be the answer to this problem? Are you prepared to come out in favour of tower blocks?

  Mr Sinden: We come out in favour of higher density development and we echo the views of the WWF about there being a strong degree of mythology surrounding the debate about density. Higher-density development does not necessarily mean high-density development in the sense of tower blocks and excessively high density. What it does mean, however, is building at significantly higher densities to the densities we are building at the moment. The latest data from the ODPM shows that we are achieving an increase in the average density of new residential development. The data published at the beginning of last month, in May, shows that on average we were achieving 30 dwellings per hectare densities in the last year. That is an increase on the previous year from 27 dwellings per hectare. Given the fact that the Government has set a target range of between 30 and 50 dwellings per hectare in PPG3 we are still at the bottom end of that range and we would argue very strongly that even 50 dwellings per hectare really could not be described as "high density". It is only at that level of density that we begin to get the sustainability gains not just in terms of effective and efficient use of land but also in terms of promoting the viability of businesses and services. For example, there are studies which show that bus services are only viable when they are serving residential areas of 40 dwellings per hectare plus. And let's not forget that if you look around most of inner London most of the residential development that is going on in inner London and it is not high rise these days, at densities of 80 dwellings per hectare and it is high quality and it is attractive. We certainly do not think that we need to go back to the tower block experience. There may well be instances where that would be an appropriate response to the urban design context within which you are considering the redevelopment of a particular site, but we are not advocating that.

  Mr Oliver: It is often quite inefficient use of land. If you really want to get relatively high density in a functional environment it is quite often better to build low or medium rise than high rise simply because of the space you have to have between buildings in high rise.

  Q76  Chairman: Do you have a view on the fact that people's back gardens in my constituency are being turned into development plots? I take it from what you have been saying that you think it is quite a good idea?

  Mr Sinden: No, we do not. We do have a view and it has been reported in some instances. We recognise that the official definition of brown field land or "previously used land and buildings", which is the technical term, does embrace the curtilege of a dwelling house which would include a garden but we have pointed out, and indeed the best local authorities recognise this, that there are important design quality and design standards to do with densities in new development which need to be respected also. Those are to do with the character of a residential area, which means invariably in most instances where you have relatively low density housing with large gardens that you want to seek to preserve that character and that identity. We believe that it is a misinterpretation and a misapplication of government policy which has led to cases such as that to which you refer which are unfortunate and unnecessary.

  Chairman: I am beginning to think we are going to need a campaign to protect suburban England as well as rural England! Anyway, thank you very much indeed for your time, it was a very helpful session, and also for your written evidence.

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