Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 319)



  Q300  Joan Walley: But you have got commitments?

  Mr Whitaker: Yes, we have.

  Q301  Joan Walley: You have got money that has been allocated, have you not?

  Mr Whitaker: Yes, we have, and we are very pleased with that. We want commitment to the numbers now, to say, "Well, actually we are going to facilitate output of more housing in this country," and therefore as an industry we can invest in the training and skills that we need to deliver that, however that is, whether it is through traditional skills or through modern methods of construction. But if somebody says, "Well, actually things might change next year. We might turn round and we will reduce the numbers all over again," and we as an industry have just skilled up to produce more housing, and somebody says, "Well, actually we don't need more housing"—

  Q302  Joan Walley: So if the Minister was sat where you are sat now and you were saying what was needed, what would you say to Government is needed to give you that trigger to go ahead and to keep the apprentices and the training and the skills coming through?

  Mr Whitaker: A long term commitment to a strategy to increase the output of housing in this country.

  Chairman: Well, it might help to cancel the General Election then as well!

  Joan Walley: I think that is unfair, Chairman.

  Q303  Mr Chaytor: Your industry produces vast quantities of CO2 emissions because we build poorly insulated homes and you use up huge quantities of finite resources, you generate vast traffic movement, so you have not exactly been in the vanguard of sustainable development. My question is, what are you doing as a trade association to turn that around? Have you given specific leadership, specific guidance to your member companies to start operating in a more sustainable way?

  Mr Slaughter: Across that range of issues, I think that is very wide-ranging indeed. I would have to say that we would not entirely accept the premise of your question.

  Q304  Mr Chaytor: The housing sector produces 27% of the nation's carbon dioxide.

  Mr Slaughter: That is the entire housing stock.

  Q305  Mr Chaytor: If the Barker recommendations go ahead it will increase it by a further 20%.

  Mr Slaughter: That is referring to the DEFRA report, which I will perhaps come back to, but if you take the 27% figure, that is for the entire housing stock and, as I think is well known, the new build housing today is far more energy efficient than its predecessors and in fact we would maintain that approached in the right way a new house building programme that also allows for replacement where appropriate of the older, less energy efficient housing stock could be a good thing environmentally rather than a problem. But to come back to your question, we are looking seriously as a trade association at sustainability. We are engaged in dialogue with organisations like WWF. We have begun to look at what we can do in promoting our own sustainability strategy. We are at a fairly early stage of that, so we do not have a public position that I can share with you today, but I can give you an undertaking that we are looking seriously at those issues and that is likely to involve a range of interactions with other parties, not just the builders themselves but with the supply chain and other parts of the picture. On the 20% figure in the DEFRA commissioned study, I would make the remark that that was one possible outcome that was highlighted, but the report also indicated that if housing was built to higher environmental standards in the future you could in fact have an increase in house building levels above what is allowed for in existing regional planning guidance for probably a lower environmental impact than continuing on existing standards. There are obviously issues about how you get to that higher level of standards, but I do not think it is necessarily the case that having this new house building means it is an environmental bad; quite the opposite.

  Q306  Mr Chaytor: But are you proactive in arguing the case for zero emission housing, for example?

  Mr Slaughter: I do not think we can say that we are proactively arguing for that at the moment.

  Q307  Mr Chaytor: Surely this is key? There is no point in just issuing warm words about sustainability, you have got to come to the crunch point where you put your position on the line and say, "It is possible to build a zero emission house and this is what we should be aiming for and this is what the Government should do in terms of Building Regulations."

  Mr Slaughter: I think what I should perhaps say is that we could not make that commitment now from where we are because that is a big jump. Ian may want to come in on this.

  Q308  Mr Chaytor: But it could be done over a timescale? We are talking long timescales here, are we? Are we talking twenty year timescales here, for example?

  Mr Hornby: It is over a large timescale. To actually try to achieve that immediately is virtually impossible and there is a major risk factor there. We heard from our friends, Countryside, that the current Building Regulations achieve in terms of thermal performance the "pass" of the EcoHomes. The next consultation is out at the end of this month, which should take us to "good" to "excellent" possibly, so I think in terms of performance on energy conservation the industry is developing systems to achieve that. It has been through evolution rather than revolution but I think there are probably about thirty examples where members of the industry are actually promoting off-site manufacture, prefabrications, to try and address these issues even further and they obviously have their own internal drivers which are pushing them towards this.

  Q309  Mr Chaytor: At the current rate of progress in updating the Building Regulations, how many years before we build zero emission housing as a norm?

  Mr Hornby: I cannot answer that question.

  Q310  Mr Chaytor: But is this not crucial for your role as a trade association and is it not crucial for government housing policy? We are talking about planning for the building of homes twenty years ahead but you cannot tell us that we could ramp up our energy efficiency?

  Mr Slaughter: To be constructive about this, I think the point we would have to make is that we can have this discussion but the discussion has not taken place and maybe this is an issue about how processes have worked and the way the Sustainable Buildings Task Group was referred to in the last session is relevant here. The ideas that have been put forward by that task group are, I think, a move in the direction that perhaps you are interested in, but we have not had the debate about that. The code has not been set up yet. We have not been able to be involved in an active discussion about it. I think we would like to be involved in those discussions and it is entirely reasonable to suggest that you can work towards a long term goal on emissions or anything else, but we have not had the right structures perhaps to facilitate that dialogue.

  Q311  Mr Chaytor: Just one final thing. You mentioned your work with the WWF, who have conducted a survey of FTSE listed companies. How many of our members are in the top end of that survey?

  Mr Slaughter: Well, I think probably only one of the companies surveyed is not a member of the trade association.

  Q312  Mr Chaytor: Only one is not a member?

  Mr Slaughter: Yes.

  Q313  Mr Chaytor: Okay, but how do your members perform? If only one company is not a member then inevitably all the rest of the companies surveyed are members?

  Mr Slaughter: Well, it depends how you want to draw it.

  Q314  Joan Walley: I just wanted to press you a bit further on the point that Mr Chaytor was making in respect of energy efficiency. Am I right in thinking that there has just been the consultation about the new regulations in respect of energy efficiency in terms of insulation of houses?

  Mr Hornby: It is to be issued for consultation at the end of this month.

  Q315  Joan Walley: Right. Presumably this is something that you have discussed and have got some view on. What is your bottom line on that? It would be very interesting as well, I think, for the Committee to have a copy of that response to ODPM.

  Mr Hornby: There are some unknowns in there at the moment. The actual calculation methodology I believe will change from a table of minimum new values to actually a calculation which predicts the amount of carbon emissions to achieve a pass—

  Q316  Joan Walley: Well, never mind the technicalities of it, as a trade association what would you like the Government to be doing in respect of those regulations? If you were briefing Government in terms of the way forward you would like to be going, where are you pitching it at in terms of energy efficiency and insulation?

  Mr Hornby: Well, it is a constant improvement of the energy efficiency of homes, which we appreciate the Government is—

  Q317  Joan Walley: But do you want it? Are you willing to go down that route, quicker rather than later? I do not get the feeling that you do. I feel that you are trying to slow it down. The Committee visited Aberdeen last week and the one message that we were given was, "Whatever you do, if you can influence anything, get better insulation in terms of the construction of buildings." Why are you not shouting that from the roof tops?

  Mr Whitaker: Well, because there are lots of practical issues.

  Q318  Joan Walley: So it cannot be done?

  Mr Whitaker: No, we are not saying it cannot be done, we are saying that there are practical issues that—

  Q319  Mr Francois: That are affecting profits?

  Mr Whitaker: Yes, it affects the way that we build. It affects the building techniques that we use, it affects the skills that we have got, it affects the type of housing that we build.

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