Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)



  Q200  Chairman: But the Government has somehow given the impression—and I think the Chancellor began this process when he announced the publication of the report initially—that they have basically accepted pretty well all the recommendations, are very positive about it and are pressing ahead.

  Lord Rooker: I have no doubt we will see some effect of that when the Chancellor announces the result of the Spending Review next week, but as I repeat, Barker is on top of what we are already planning to do, which of course we only announced a short time ago. Two years is a short time in the scale of these things.

  Q201  Chairman: Do you think it is regrettable that  she either was not given the freedom to look at  the  environmental consequences of her recommendations or chose not to?

  Lord Rooker: Well, that is a matter you will have to ask Kate Barker.

  Q202  Chairman: But you set the brief.

  Lord Rooker: No, but hang on, the way you asked the question it is for Kate Barker to answer that. We take account in our decisions of environmental effects, whether it is on planning, house building or the growth areas, as Ministers and as people responsible for the delivery of vehicles we are setting up. So we have no problem about us being accountable for environmental aspects of either new house building, refurbished house building or the planning decisions. That is what we are accountable for and that is what we are doing, so I am quite happy about that.

  Q203  Chairman: So the whole question of the relationship between sustainable development, which I know the Government takes very seriously, and the housing supply issue will be looked at by Ministers?

  Lord Rooker: Well, it is not going to be looked at, it is done—and I genuinely mean this—on a daily basis, either at meetings and visits that Keith and I both do and appointments we make.

  Q204  Chairman: Is this part of the task force's remit?

  Lord Rooker: No. People will come back having mulled over the views about the Barker Review. As I say, the Government will not give a pronouncement on this for some considerable time, at least 12 months away. In the meantime, there is a huge operation going on quite separate, underneath the Barker numbers, if you like, (a) to get a step increase in the change of housing production in this country, both replacement and growth, and to manage the growth in a sustainable way, whether it is in the growth areas of the South East or in the market with North Pathfinders in the Midlands and the North. The same criteria that is all set out in the Sustainable Communities Plan from last year is what is being operated on a daily basis, I can assure you of that.

  Q205  Chairman: Yes, but as you yourself have said, the whole Barker agenda is over and above the Sustainable Communities Plan.

  Lord Rooker: Well, that is correct, because we will be looking for—

  Q206  Chairman: What many people have said to us is that they are concerned in relation to Barker, not the Sustainable Communities Plan, which is separate and we may come on to it in a minute. In relation to Barker, they are very concerned that she only really mentioned the environment at all in order to dismiss it as a factor. That would not matter if the Government had not given the impression that it had accepted Barker in whole.

  Lord Rooker: Well, no. I ask you to judge us by what we are doing and the decisions we are taking now. We will implement the bits of Barker that we agree with after consultation in the future and that will build in what we are actually doing now the last year and the next two to three years under the forthcoming spending round, and those who want to comment on the fact that Barker might be missing some paragraphs on the environment or aspects of the environment, or the economics of the environment, I ask those people to judge what we are doing now in creating a step change in housing production and rebuilding and creating new sustainable communities. Judge us by what we are doing now on that because that is the way we will implement Barker on top of what we are doing.

  Q207  Chairman: It sounds as though you are distancing yourself slightly from Barker.

  Lord Rooker: No, I am not. I am just answering honestly your question and I am not bulling because I cannot say what will happen about Barker. It is 12 months away and we are going to have to move heaven and earth to get to the starting point, if you like, base one on which Barker will be built. That in itself is the most major operation that we are engaged in at the moment to get those extra 200,000 dwellings locked in over and above the 900,000 already planned. That in itself is a major task and that is our central daily task, if you like.

  Q208  Mr Francois: Minister, the Sustainable Communities Plan, as it were, is confirmed and in the public domain. The merger of the regional housing boards and the regional planning boards is confirmed and in the public domain and you are saying now that the Government's response to Barker is likely to be—you have used the words several times—approximately 12 months away. Now, I am not asking you to tell us when the General Election is, but most of the spread betting is that it is in May of next year, in which case the announcements of the response to Barker would fall probably just after a General Election. Is it possible then that when you, as it were, respond to Barker there will be further announcements about house building above and beyond the Sustainable Communities Plan contingent upon whatever view the Government takes of the Barker report, i.e. there will be even more?

  Lord Rooker: Yes.

  Q209  Mr Francois: Right. And it is possible—you have used the words "12 months" a number of times—that if the Election were in May you would announce even more houses, were you still to be in Government, shortly after the General Election was out of the way, yes?

  Lord Rooker: Well, you are presupposing the date of the General Election. It could be next May, it could be May 2006. We are not operating on an electoral cycle here, by the way. The Communities Plan is a 2016-2021 plan. The house building programmes that I am referring to are 2016-2021, the kind of figures I am referring to, the 900,000 plus the 200,000 are by 2016. This is not a quick fix for next year.

  Q210  Mr Francois: All right, without pinning you down to when the General Election is, it is likely there will be further announcements about house building in relation to Barker in around about the early summer of next year? You did say yes before.

  Lord Rooker: I did say yes before, but on the basis that every home in this country currently has to last 1,200 years we have got to do something about improving our housing production. We cannot carry on as we are. There is not enough affordable housing, there are not houses in the right place. We do not replace at anywhere near the rate of our continental partners. It is 0.1% a year; it is 1% in France and Germany. So every dwelling in this country on average at the current figures of replacement and new build has to last 1,200 years. That is not sustainable for any government or anybody charged with making sure we have got a decent civilised society. So, yes is the answer to your question, even with that little caveat.

  Chairman: Thank you, Minister.

  Q211  Joan Walley: I just really wanted to follow up what you were saying just now and to ask you whether you feel that the Barker report is somehow or another fudging the whole issue because it is taking attention away from what the task of Government is to deal with now. I just wonder whether or not you are really suggesting to us that our inquiry should be concentrating as much on the Sustainable Communities Plan as it should be looking into the future in terms of Barker, because presumably what you are saying is that this whole issue needs to be looked at now in terms of the current delivery and perhaps it is a bit too early to start looking at what the implications of Barker could be further down the line?

  Lord Rooker: I could not have put it better myself. I genuinely mean that. I do not think there has been enough parliamentary scrutiny about the Sustainable Communities Plan. There is next to no interest where I come from, down the corridor. I would have thought there would be more interest in this House. I mean, we are engaged on a big operation that is a national operation. It is not urban, it is not rural, it is not south and it is not north, it is national, and it was all set out 18 months ago and lots of decisions are flowing from that, whether it is new forest, next to green belt new housing production. There is next to no inquiry, there is next to no scrutiny about it. So the answer to your question, Joan, is yes.

north, it is national, and it was all set out 18 Prime Minister Select Committee had conducted an inquiry into the Sustainable Communities Plan?

  Lord Rooker: Yes. Well, somewhat inadequately.

  Q213  Chairman: Well, you may wish to convey that sentiment to them.

  Lord Rooker: We did at the time, Chairman.

  Chairman: That is not a problem for us.

  Q214  Sue Doughty: I would like to look a little bit at the allocation of land for development because obviously it is a bit of a fraught area and I know both Ministers will be fully familiar with the problems we have in the South East with affordability of housing and limited green belt area, and the tensions that there are between trying to get people into houses and retain the countryside. There is a recommendation which is causing a lot of concern about the requirement to allocate between 20 to 40% of land for development as a buffer which would be released automatically to development if certain trigger levels were reached, including house price rises. Is this one of the recommendations you are thinking of taking forward?

  Lord Rooker: This is back to Barker?

  Q215  Sue Doughty: Yes.

  Lord Rooker: Well, there is a big debate going on, of course, about the connection she made between housing production and prices, but all I can do, I am sorry about this, is to repeat the current situation that we are in at the moment. 90% of England is green field; 90% is green field. That is the reality at the present time. Green belt is 14%, national parks are 8%, areas of outstanding natural beauty are 16%. Even if we achieve the growth, the 200,000 on top of the 900,000, the urban will go from 10% to 11% and the green fields will go down from 90% to 89%. So one could argue this is not an issue about concreting over the countryside. You did not use those words, I know, but people do and I am not putting words in your mouth. In other words, the amount of land-take is incredibly small. It varies area to area. Our policy anyway is brown field first, higher densities—

  Q216  Chairman: I beg your pardon. I do not wish to be rude, but perhaps the Planning Minister would like to answer Ms Doughty's question about this over-provision which Barker recommends, the 40% buffer. Is it one of the recommendations that you will be taking forward and have you considered the implications of the almost wholesale marketisation of the current planning system which this represents?

  Keith Hill: I am not entirely sure what you mean by that phrase "wholesale marketisation of the planning system", but on the issue of allocations policy that is one of the proposals in Barker that we are looking at and commissioning work on. It is not a proposal that we have accepted, but it is one of the package of proposals that we want to examine. But no decision has certainly been taken on that so far.

  Q217  Chairman: Let me explain what I mean by "marketisation". That particular recommendation, if implemented, would effectively place decisions for future development in the hands of the property market rather than in the hands of planning authorities. Is that a principle that you are happy to concede?

  Keith Hill: I think it is one of the issues that we will want to examine as we take forward our consideration of this proposal, but we have not made any decision on that matter and I certainly would not want to pre-empt any decision, or indeed any judgment on that matter at this point either.

  Q218  Sue Doughty: Well, I still remain concerned about this because having listened to the answers on that, we still have particular concerns. In some parts of the country where the heat is highest there is an implication very heavily about building on the green belt as proportions of green belt are not quite as high as the rest of the countryside. So I am concerned about how much work is going to be done on this whole issue about buffer land and I fully take on board what Lord Rooker is saying about the need for housing. That is not an issue. But there are other aspects as well about how you deal with the housing market, how you damp down prices, as well as taking in this buffer land, using up this buffer land. What I want to know is how much study is going to go into not only whether we just do a land grab for marketisation and just say, "Yes, here's a trigger. Let's get hold of this next bit of land here, which may be green belt, may be not," but what else we could do to take the heat out of the housing market, what other strategies are there, including looking at whole areas which are already over-heated, such as we have in some spots in the south-east of England?

  Keith Hill: Well, if I could perhaps comment on that before Lord Rooker makes a response. I think you should not set hares running and possibly scaremonger on this issue of green belt. Let us be entirely clear that the Government's record on green belt is clear and impressive. We have increased the green belt by something in the order of 19,000 hectares since 1997 and there are 12,000 hectares in the pipeline to come from local authorities as they develop their local plans. We have made it absolutely clear that where there should be any green belt take, we would expect on a regional basis the replacement of that green belt take. We have also been absolutely clear about our principle of brown field first and green field where necessary—and I mean green field and not green belt. Let me remind the Committee that currently new build in London and the South East is proceeding at the rate of 66% on brown field, which exceeds the Government's target of 60% new build in brown field. So we are absolutely moving in the right direction. If I might speak for the Thames Gateway, for which I have specific responsibility and which is, of course, the largest of the growth area projects, there we expect up to 80% of the new build to occur on brown field. So I think we can reasonably say that we have a major programme moving ahead and actually it conforms entirely to this Government's commitment to brown field first and very little take on the green belt. That is the reality now and that is the reality for the foreseeable future. Lord Rooker, I do not know if you want to add anything?

  Lord Rooker: No, I agree. That will not change. That will not change post-Barker. That is a policy objective, one we are operating and one we intend to see operated as well. We are also building at higher densities, so we are taking less land to get more dwellings.

  Keith Hill: If I might throw a further statistic into the debate, if you take what you might describe as almost the middle range of the Barker proposals, which is for a further 220,000 to 350,000, and look at 300,000 new homes over the next ten years in London and the South East, you are actually looking at building on 0.75% of total land area of the South East and at building on 1.92%,[3] I think the statistic is, of developable land. So, you know, I think we need to keep these things in some perspective, and that of course is at a much higher level of build than we are currently committed to.

  Q219  Mr Francois: Minister, you have said in response to an earlier question that you were still considering whether or not to accept Barker's proposal for what we describe as "wholesale marketisation of the planning system". I think you said that no decision had been taken on that yet. You will be very aware, as we all are as Members of Parliament, that planning can often be extremely controversial and it is one of those things particularly that people look to their local councillors sometimes to defend them from controversial planning applications within the bounds of planning law and the Government has gone to a great deal of time and trouble to update planning law with the new Act. If you were to accept wholesale marketisation as proposed by Barker, what then is the point in having local elections?

  Keith Hill: Personally, I am simply not prepared to go down the path of this speculation about so-called "marketisation". It is not an expression that I personally recognise. We have certainly not committed ourselves to it but we have, as I have indicated, undertaken to work on the proposal for the so-called over-allocations policy. That is the precise position. But let me also remind you as a former and, if I might say so, distinguished member of the Standing Committee on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill that absolutely central to the Bill is our commitment to engage with local communities. Indeed, as you will well recall, the very first step in the evolution of the local development framework is the requirement for local authorities to come forward with a statement of community involvement which explains exactly how they propose to involve the local community at every stage and every aspect of the development of the plan at local level. What is more, of course, we are placing in general terms an emphasis on front-loading of plan making and of pre-application negotiation. All of these things are designed to ensure the greatest possible involvement of local communities and the greatest transparency in the planning process. All of these ought to give local people reassurances about the extent to which the process will be an open and proper process.

3   Note by the witness: This calculation assumes that Government allows an additional 120,000 houses per annum to be built over and above existing plans, entirely in London and the South East, for ten years. It assumes that 60% of homes will be built on brownfield, at 30 dwellings per hectare. It includes an allowance for infrastructure. "South East" is GO-SE area plus Essex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. Back

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