Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

  1.  The primary aim of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is creating sustainable communities. The Sustainable Communities Plan[1], published in February 2003, provides the starting-point for a wide-ranging programme of action in support of this aim, and two subsequent reports[2] have described progress in delivery, outlined further challenges and described how they are being addressed.

  2.  In support of its aim of creating sustainable communities, the Office has adopted five strategic priorities, as follows:

    —  Delivering a better balance between housing supply and demand by supporting sustainable growth, reviving markets and tackling abandonment.

    —  Ensuring people have decent places to live by improving the quality and sustainability of local environments and neighbourhoods, reviving brownfield land, and improving the quality of housing.

    —  Tackling disadvantage by reviving the most deprived neighbourhoods, reducing social exclusion and supporting society's most vulnerable groups.

    —  Delivering better public services, by devolving decision-making to the most effective level—regional, local or neighbourhood:

      —  Promoting high quality, customer-focused local services and ensuring adequate, stable resources are available to local government.

      —  Clarifying the roles and functions of local government, its relationship with central and regional government and the arrangements for neighbourhood engagement, in the context of a shared strategy for local government.

    —  Promoting the development of the English regions by improving their economic performance so that all are able to reach their full potential, and developing an effective framework for regional governance taking account of the public's view of what is best for their area.

  3.  As is clear from these strategic priorities, the Office's aim and objectives clearly encompass the goal of sustainable development, integrating economic, social and environmental factors. In many cases, the Office's programmes work support all three of these objectives, as is clear from the action plans set out in the Sustainable Communities Plan and the subsequent reports. Where this is not possible, and difficult judgements have to be made, each of these factors is given its full weight.

  4.  The Government set out its proposals to build more sustainable homes in the Sustainable Communities Plan. This identified four growth areas where development within the South East could be focused to reduce the pressure and associated environmental impacts on high demand areas, and to ensure that necessary infrastructure is delivered alongside new development.

  5.  Around 10% (£13 million) of the Growth Areas capital programme is being spent to create new strategic green space to strengthen green buffers between towns, to enhance new developments and to restore environmental and heritage features. Examples include the creation of a new regional park in Northamptonshire, extensions to the Forest of Marston Vale, green belt improvement around Cambridge and improved countryside access in the Lea Valley. A joint publication between ODPM and Defra, "Creating Sustainable Communities: Greening the Gateway—A greenspace strategy for Thames Gateway," was published in January 2004, and sets out the core principles that should be adopted in the planning and design of green spaces in the Thames Gateway

  6.  In her review of housing supply, Kate Barker concluded that the under-supply of housing was hindering macro-economic stability and harming individual quality of life by putting home ownership out of reach for those with moderate incomes in areas of high demand. Her central recommendation was that there should be a step change in housing supply. She recommended that the Government adopt an "affordability goal" linked to housing supply at the national level, which would then inform development of regional housing targets.

  7.  The Government has accepted this recommendation. The economic and social effects of the current shortage of housing supply are not sustainable in their impacts either on communities or on individuals. There are important environmental dimensions, but they are not to be regarded as placing an effective veto on addressing the problems of supply. Our strategy for developing sustainable communities is based on looking at the range of economic, social and environmental issues in an integrated way, and seeking positive outcomes across each of these dimensions. Where there are impacts on the environment, these need to be addressed properly. A range of processes and measures are in place to ensure that this is achieved.

  8.  Kate Barker outlined options for levels of additional growth in her report, but she made it clear that these presented choices for Government, taking account of the need to balance the economic case for additional housing against its social and environmental implications. The Government accepts that the implementation of Kate Barker's recommendations needs better to reflect the wider social and environmental dimensions. Further work is needed, both to determine what might be deliverable at the national level and to establish how any affordability goal might apply at the regional level. That work will take account of a number of factors, including the implications of growth in terms of transport, infrastructure and social and environmental factors.

  9.  Kate Barker recognised the necessity of supporting extra housing development with good public services and infrastructure. This approach underpins the Sustainable Communities Plan and the Government's policies in the growth areas. The aim will be to create vibrant communities, places where people want to live and work and which will stand the test of time. The Government has accepted Kate Barker's proposal for a Community Infrastructure Fund to help fund specific schemes needed to realise housing development, alongside continuing investment from main programmes.

  10.  Kate Barker also called for an increase in social housing provision and the Government has said that it will make a start on this in the current Spending Review. In fact, supply has already been boosted through substantially increased investment over the last three years. The Housing Corporation's investment programme delivered over 23,000 new affordable homes in 2003/04, focused in London and the South East, where the need is.

  11.  All housing development, whether under existing plans or specifically in pursuit of Kate Barker's recommendations, is subject to the usual requirements of the planning system. That system has sustainable development at its heart. The Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act makes contributing to the achievement of sustainable development a statutory objective for regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks. Draft Planning Policy Statement 1 (PPS1) (Creating Sustainable Communities), on which the Government has just completed consultation, emphasises the Government's commitment to a planning system that will support and achieve the Government's wider economic, social and environmental objectives to achieve sustainable development.

  12.  PPS1 makes clear that planning authorities should consider how their plans are addressing the aims for sustainable development in an integrated way. It sets out how planning policies can support the four aims of sustainable development (protection of the environment, maintenance of high levels of economic growth and employment, social inclusion, and prudent use of natural resources). For example, PPS1 states that planning policies should reflect a preference for minimising the need to consume new resources over the lifetime of the development and that consideration should be given to encouraging energy efficient buildings, community heating schemes and the use of combined heat and power in developments.

  13.  PPS1 is supported by other planning policy statements and planning policy guidance notes. Planning Policy Guidance 3 (PPG3) (Housing) contains policies on planning for housing development to ensure that development is focused on brownfield land and in environmentally sustainable locations. Draft PPS7 (Sustainable Development in Rural Areas) sets out policies for sustainable housing development in rural areas.

  14   The Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act requires new Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks (LDFs) to be subject to a Sustainability Appraisal, which will incorporate the requirements for strategic environmental assessment. Indeed, the purpose of Regional Spatial Strategies, which plan for the scale and distribution of housing development, is to produce a plan for spatial development that balances economic, social and environmental objectives. Similarly the new Development Plan Documents (within the LDF) do so at the local level in allocating sites for housing development.

  15.  Under the previous planning legislation, individual developments on sites allocated in Local Plans were also subject to Environmental Impact Assessments and scrutinised by statutory consultees, including the Environment Agency and Highways Agency who might raise concerns about impacts including (for example) flood risk, habitats and congestion. These arrangements will continue to apply to development on sites allocated in the new Development Plan Documents.

  16.  The planning system can also deal with environmental impacts associated with development by applying conditions to the granting of planning permission and through the negotiation of Section 106 agreements, designed to mitigate the impacts of development.

  17.  Kate Barker proposed that the planning system should allocate more land for development than in the past. Planning for sustainable development is based on an integrated approach to the four objectives of the Barker Report. Objectives for growth should reflect economic and social imperatives but also recognise the need for efficient use of land, and the transport and infrastructure issues, to ensure sustainability. Environmental impacts will need to be identified and then avoided, reduced or mitigated.

  18.  PPS1 states that planning policies should promote the more efficient use of land through higher density, mixed use and the use of suitable previously developed land and buildings. Achieving these objectives will lessen environmental impacts and lead to more sustainable outcomes. The Government has achieved its target that 60% of new housing development should be on previously developed land. The sequential approach, set out in PPG3, is based on ensuring the release of sustainable brownfield sites first. PPG3 guidance on densities, backed up in London and the South East by a direction for developments under a density threshold (less than 30 dwellings per hectare on sites above one hectare) to be notified to Government Offices, has also had the effect of reversing the historical trend in densities.

  19.  The Barker Review also contains recommendations to make development more sustainable through the provision of supporting infrastructure, and a Planning Gain Supplement to capture some of the gains associated with development in order to fund some of these requirements.

  20.  The Government is committed to ensuring that provision of infrastructure and services will take place in step with growth. The aim is to create communities which, from the start, integrate a more sustainable approach to health, education, transport, the environment and natural resources. The development of individual growth locations will only proceed where it can be adequately supported by committed or planned transport services and infrastructure.

  21.  Government departments are working closely to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place to create truly sustainable communities in the growth areas. Thus:

    —  ODPM has provided £610 million for the four growth areas (Thames Gateway, Milton Keynes-South Midlands, London-Stansted-Cambridge-Peterborough and Ashford) to be used for additional funding for local infrastructure, services and environmental improvements.

    —  The Department for Transport has already committed over £2.7 billion to transport schemes within the growth areas.

    —  The Department of Health has announced a funding package that includes a growth area adjustment as part of future Primary Care Trust allocations; an additional £20 million of revenue funding per annum for 2004-05 and 2005-06; and £20 million of capital resources for allocation in 2005-06.

    —  The Department for Education and Skills is introducing a mechanism whereby Local Education Authorities can apply for additional capital support, if needed, to meet exceptional circumstances, including unusually high levels of growth. The new strategic Building Schools for the Future programme will also address capacity and help all four growth areas over time.

  22.  The Government is committed to ensuring that household growth is located and designed in ways that respect the environment and minimise resource use. In particular, it is committed to the growth areas having sufficient water resources and the necessary sewerage infrastructure to match demand, with the relevant water companies and environmental regulators being involved in the development of the growth area proposals.

  23.  Water companies will need to identify options for demand management, including better leakage control and higher levels of water efficiency. The Government is supporting innovative solutions for water management; for example, the ODPM is providing funding to the Environment Agency to commission an Integrated Water Management Strategy which will cover water supply, wastewater treatment, and flood defence and alleviation issues in the Ashford growth area.

  24.  Against this background the Government sees no need for another overarching national strategy. The Sustainable Communities Plan already provides such a strategy, and while Kate Barker's report has focused attention on the need for additional housing supply, it has not undermined the basic approach. It remains the Government's intention to ensure that the legitimate needs of communities and individuals for homes are delivered in a way that is truly sustainable. And at the level of individual schemes the planning system will continue to ensure that environmental considerations have been fully taken into account in new developments.


  25.  The Government recognises the importance of good design in achieving its goal of sustainable development. The Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act therefore introduces design statements which will accompany certain planning applications. These statements look to ensure high quality, well-designed and sustainable development.

  26.  The ODPM also recently launched a pilot programme to investigate how design coding could be used to improve the quality of housing developments. Design codes set out the design parameters for a development and can be used to achieve both more sustainable patterns of development as well as improved environmental standards for housing itself.

  27.  There are a number of existing initiatives across Government aimed at achieving higher environmental standards in building. For example, the Senior Officials Policy Group, led by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), has been asked to set out minimum/benchmark standards (including sustainability standards) that would be expected in the procurement of built environments across the public sector including where responsibility has been devolved.

  28.  In addition, the Sustainable Buildings Task Group, established by Government as a key outcome of the Better Buildings Summit published, on Tuesday 18 May, their report Better Buildings—Better Lives. The report recommends specific improvements in the quality and environmental performance of buildings, for both new build and refurbishment, across the country, which industry and Government can look to deliver in partnership in both the short and long term.

  29.  The Group also recommended that a Code for Sustainable Buildings should be developed which would be based on extant codes, in particular BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method). The Government is now carefully considering how best to take forward the Group's recommendations, including their recommendation of a national code for sustainable buildings, in ways that are practical, achievable and cost effective.

  30.  It is essential not to stifle creativity or set targets or standards that, for example, may be suited to the South East but would not apply to new development or refurbishment in the North. Flexibility is important and consideration needs to be made to differing market conditions and needs.

  31.  As well as a need for flexibility, it is important not to resort too quickly to legislation. There is a responsibility on the industry, as well as on the Government, to ensure that its products respect the environment. The Advisory Committee on Consumer Products and the Environment (ACCPE) provides advice to Government on policies to reduce the environmental impacts of products and services. The Government is currently considering recommendations made in its most recent report (Feb 2004).

  32.  ODPM is incentivising improvements in the environmental performance of new and existing social housing. For instance, all new built homes funded by the Housing Corporation are required to achieve a BRE EcoHomes rating of "Pass" as a minimum essential condition of grant, rising to "Good" from April 2005. High standards also apply to most new developments brought forward by English Partnerships. Housing Associations and some groups are already constructing to higher environmental standards.

  33.  New housing developments will generate additional waste, both construction waste and subsequent household waste streams. It is important, therefore, to ensure that the necessary infrastructure exists to cope with additional pressures. A leading example is English Partnerships' showpiece development at Greenwich Millennium Village, where on site construction waste has been reduced by around 50%. Not only is this beneficial to the environment but, through reducing the number of skips (also by around 50%), there was a cost saving of over £130,000. It is clear through this example that sustainability does clearly have business benefits as well as environmental and social benefits.

  34.  The Office keeps Building Regulations under review to ensure that current standards are appropriate. The most relevant part of the existing Building Regulations is Part L, though this is limited to standards for conservation of fuel and power (energy conservation). The Building Regulations that came into effect on 1 April 2002 introduced significant improvements of 25% in energy performance for new dwellings. In addition, Defra works with the Waste and Resources Action programme on promoting sustainable waste management and the Carbon Trust and Energy Saving Trust on promoting energy efficiency best practice and innovation.

  35.  The Government is supporting the passage of the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Bill. If the Bill is enacted it will amend the Building Act and provide further powers to address wider sustainability issues within the Building Regulations.

  36.  The availability of the skills and training needed to deliver sustainable communities has become a matter of increasing concern. Accordingly, the Deputy Prime Minister asked Sir John Egan to carry out a review of the professional skills needed to deliver sustainable communities. His final report was published on 19 April 2004, and £3.6 million has been provided in 2004-05 to take forward his detailed recommendations.

  37.  ODPM is working with the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment (CABE) in targeting resources on audiences with high priority skills needs and has earmarked £2 million in their skills programme for 2004-05 for this purpose. The programme includes:

    —  training for priority audiences such as highway engineers and local councillors and an urban design summer school and masterclass;

    —  a regional capacity building programme focusing on the growth areas and housing market renewal areas;

    —  preparing an options appraisal for a national centre of excellence in sustainable communities; and

    —  work on piloting the use of design coding.

  38.  The Office is continuing to work closely with Regional Centres of Excellence, and has set aside £1 million in 2004-05 to take forward the implementation of their development plans and detailed work programmes. ODPM is also working with a number of smaller organisations, such as the Prince's Foundation and the Town and Country Planning Association, on specific short training programmes to help address key skills gaps.

May 2004

1   Sustainable Communities: building for the future, published by ODPM, February 2003. Back

2   Creating sustainable communities: Making it happen: Thames Gateway and the Growth Areas, published by ODPM, July 2003, and Making it happen: The Northern Way, published by ODPM, February 2004. Back

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