Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

  1.  This memorandum is in addition to that submitted by ODPM, which explains the wider Government policies on Sustainable Communities. This note focuses on the environmental aspects of housing growth.


  2.  Defra supports the five strategic priorities for creating Sustainable Communities:

    —  Delivering a better balance between housing supply and demand.

    —  Ensuring people have decent places to live.

    —  Tackling disadvantage by reviving deprived neighbourhoods and tackling social exclusion.

    —  Providing better public services.

    —  Promoting development of English Regions by improving their economic performance so that all reach their full potential.

  3.  The Government will shortly be publishing a refreshed Rural Strategy which will set out how the vision of Sustainable Rural Communities set out in the 2000 Rural White Paper will be delivered in the next three to five years. The Strategy will set out action that will support the creation of sustainable rural communities, including in relation to sustaining economic development, ensuring fair access to public services and affordable housing, and valuing the countryside as an asset. The Strategy will include the Government's response to Lord Haskins report on Modernising Rural Delivery.

  4.  Defra also works to increase the supply of affordable housing in rural areas through supporting ODPM and the Housing Corporation in rural proofing their policy and programmes. This includes agreement of the Housing Corporation's rural target for settlements below 3,000 which over 2004-05 to 2005-06 is set to approve a total of 3,500 homes. At a local level we fund the Countryside Agency to deliver the Rural Housing Enabler programme which provides funding for the employment of 40 specialists in 30 counties/unitaries across England to work with local rural communities and identify housing need and ways of meeting that need.

  5.  Kate Barker's review of housing supply reinforced the evidence of undersupply of housing and the adverse consequences this has on economic and social development, particularly in the supply of housing for key workers. House building in 2001 was at its lowest level since World War II. Defra recognises the need to provide extra housing to resolve these problems. Our aims are: to ensure that new communities are as sustainable as possible, particularly in eco-efficiency terms; to promote sustainable infrastructure; and to minimise the adverse environmental consequences. The Sustainable Communities Plan provides a significant opportunity to develop better standards and practices.

  6.  Defra strongly supports other elements of the Plan, which promote wider sustainable development, in particular the emphasis on using brownfield land for housing, and increasing density rates. ODPM figures published last month show that 66% of all new building is now on brownfield land (exceeding the target of 60%), and that the density of building has increased to 30 dwellings per hectare compared to 25 in 1996. Green belt has increased by 19,000 hectares since 1997 with a potential for a further increase of around 12,000 hectares proposed in emerging local plans.


  7.  Defra commissions extensive economic research from external researchers on all areas of its policy interests to provide independent analyses to inform the development of policy. The purpose of the Entec study, "The Environmental Impacts of Increasing the Supply of Housing in the UK", was to provide an objective initial assessment, quantified as far as possible, of the environmental impacts of proposals in the Barker Report for increasing housing supply so as to meet a range of housing affordability targets. The study looked at the impact of proposed housing increases on Defra policy concerns, to provide an indication of the nature and potential orders of magnitude of the associated environmental costs and benefits and to provide recommendations on the ways to take these forward, thus allowing them to be reflected in decision making. The timetable for this work was extremely tight, and the study was conducted as a short desk based exercise, to enable advice to be timely and to contribute to the wider government debate on housing issues.

  8.  The report was received by Defra on 23 April, and given an initial review by officials including those from other Departments and then placed on the Defra website on 7 May. Entec sent to a copy to the Environmental Audit Committee secretariat on 26 May. We regret this delay and have set in hand action to improve our presentation of Defra commissioned research. As the report itself makes clear the work was a scoping study and does not represent a definitive analysis of the problems. The figures included in the report are indicative and require substantial qualification and interpretation. Because of this, it was not published as a Defra document and the report remains the view of Entec, not Defra.

  9.  The researchers consider a number of possible scenarios in terms of the annual number of dwellings built, average housing densities and occupancies and standards of environmental design. Thus there is a very wide range in their estimates for the aggregate environmental impact—from + £1.6 billion to - £4.3 billion compared with their baseline assumption. The £8.3 billion figure quoted in the press is the highest figure for gross environmental costs in the worst case scenario ie it is effectively a comparison against a scenario of no house building at all for the next 30 years. The increased cost of the extra housing over the baseline of current build rates is just over half this figure at around £4.3 billion. However in a best case scenario which takes account of potential mitigating factors such as improved building standards, the environmental costs can be substantially curtailed in both absolute terms and over the baseline. And not least, it should be pointed out that the figure quoted is a present capitalised value over some 30 years, it is not an annual monetary cost.

  10.  As the researchers point out, there are large degrees of uncertainty over both the estimation of the scale of the environmental impacts, and in attaching monetary values to them. Only a limited range of impacts were considered in the time available and some appear calculated on a gross basis, ie they do not take account of the fact that the occupants of new housing would be creating environmental impacts in their current housing. Both under and over estimation of some figures is likely and further work may be necessary to explore these issues and refine the estimated environmental impacts.


  11.  In addition to the Entec review, which looked at the broad-brush impacts of housing, Defra is taking forward its extensive work on the detailed policy areas. Defra has contributed to two important initiatives which are relevant to the Committee's enquiry.

  12.  First the Egan Review on Skills for Sustainable Communities which was published in April. Defra welcomes the emphasis on advance and holistic planning of infrastructure alongside housing, and the proposals for improving and broadening the skill base for delivering new developments.

  13.  Second, Defra strongly supported the establishment of the Sustainable Buildings Task Group and welcomes its report "Better Buildings- Better lives" (submitted to Government on 17 May) as a valuable and timely contribution to the sustainable buildings agenda. The report recommends specific improvements in the environmental performance of buildings, for both new buildings and refurbishment, across the country, which industry and Government can look to deliver in partnership in the short and long term. The report recognises the importance and urgency that must be attached to driving up the sustainability of buildings and the ongoing work across Defra to help deliver these improvements. The report reinforces the need for the highest environmental standards (in terms of energy, waste, water, and the sustainable use of timber and other construction materials) to be applied more widely to our new and existing building stock if we are to deliver the Government's vision of a low carbon economy. These issues are brought together in the recommendation for a Code of Sustainable Building which the Group suggests is based on BREEAM and incorporates clearly specified minimum standards in key resource efficiency criteria. Other headline recommendations include "that the Government review the advisory bodies concerned with sustainable buildings to simplify and consolidate them", and "enshrine a 25% saving over average per capita water consumption in regulation by 2005 [and] a 25% energy efficiency improvement under Part L." Defra, Dti and ODPM Ministers are urgently considering the SBTG's recommendations and are looking to respond in due course on the most suitable options for implementation.

  14.  The Government's Strategy for Combined Heat and Power to 2010, published in April 2004, reconfirms the Government's commitment to its 2010 target of 10 gigawatts of installed Good Quality CHP capacity. It sets out a framework to support the growth of this sustainable energy technology and reports on a range of market interventions to help achieve this. Among these interventions is the exploration of ways to encourage the take up of CHP and other low carbon technologies in the Building Regulations revision announced in the Energy White Paper, thereby building on the CHP guidance included in the 2002 edition of the Regulations. The Strategy additionally reports on the Community Energy programme's commitment to promoting community heating and its provision of reduced heating and electricity costs to households and public buildings.

  15.  As far as energy efficiency is concerned, the Government set out an Action Plan for cutting annual carbon emissions by 12 million tonnes through energy efficiency over the next six years. These savings will need to be made across the whole economy, but a significant proportion will come from the built environment. This is reflected in the Action Plan, which contains a number of key policies and measures directed at this sector. Two important examples are the proposals for changes to the Building Regulations, which will raise standards of new and refurbished buildings from 2005; and a doubling in the level of activity under the Energy Efficiency Commitment from 2005 through to 2011, subject to a review in 2007. The combined product of the energy efficiency measures in the Action Plan will contribute roughly half the overall carbon savings in the Climate Change Programme, and save households and businesses over £3 billion per year on their energy bills by 2010.

  16.  Government is committed to ensuring that the growth areas are equipped with the water and sewerage services and infrastructure necessary to guarantee the long-term health of these communities. To achieve this we recognise the importance of involving the respective water undertakers and environmental regulators at an early stage in the development of proposals

  17.  Discussions were held with water companies by the consultants who undertook the studies leading to the identification of the growth areas. Further discussions have taken place since publication of the Sustainable Communities Plan and these continue involving the individual water companies concerned, the Environment Agency, relevant growth area delivery vehicles, DEFRA, ODPM, Water UK and OFWAT. ODPM are funding a project by the Environment Agency in the Ashford Growth Area to determine an integrated water management strategy covering water supply, wastewater treatment and flood management and alleviation. The strategy will be a crucial element in putting together the masterplan for future growth in the Ashford area. Water utility companies have just submitted plans for the next 25 years on demand and supply, which are currently being assessed by the Environment Agency, which will report to Defra Ministers in July.

  18.  In respect of flood risk management, Defra is committed to ensuring that development in the growth areas takes fully into account current and future flood risk. Whilst we recognise that some development in areas of flood risk is unavoidable, such developments have to be designed and sited in such a way as to mitigate as far as possible any potential flood risk, and allow defences to be maintained/replaced in the future. Such an approach is vital if we are to ensure that the new communities are truly sustainable. ODPM's Planning Policy Guidance Note 25 sets out the approach that planning authorities should adopt when considering applications for development in flood risk areas, including where necessary that a flood risk assessment is undertaken. The recent Foresight Flood and Coastal Defence Project highlighted the increased risk of flooding posed by climate change and socio-economic factors, particularly in coastal areas of the South East, and the importance of planning authorities thinking carefully about the longer term risk to developments on the floodplain. Defra and the Environment Agency are closely involved in detailed planning decisions in Thames Gateway to ensure that flood management measures are designed into new developments. ODPM and DEFRA are represented on the steering group for the Environment Agency's "Thames Estuary 2100" study of flood risk management, which will consider which flood defence measures are needed for the next century. All ODPM-funded projects and partnership vehicles in the Thames Gateway are required to produce an appropriate flood risk assessment.

  19.  Through ODPM the planning system ensures that the need for new facilities is incorporated into waste local plans. Defra is working closely with ODPM to ensure that the growth areas assess the amount of waste likely to arise and plan for the waste facilities needed to deal with that waste.

  20.  As mentioned above, Defra recognises the importance of the increasing use of brownfield sites for housing developments, the protection of valued open spaces, and increases in the amount of Green Belt which has been achieved through ODPM's land use planning policies. The most important biodiversity sites have statutory protection, but Defra is also working to ensure that new developments respect locally important sites, and take the opportunity to enhance the provision of greenspace for access, recreation and biodiversity. To this end, Defra supports the local biodiversity partnerships which have defined biodiversity priorities within the Growth Areas. In London and the South-East, these partnerships have established schemes to ensure benefits for biodiversity are designed into developments, especially new housing. Defra is also working with ODPM on the revision of Planning Policy Guidance Note 9 which will help to ensure that new developments respect locally important sites for nature conservation.

  21.  In addition, Defra and ODPM jointly funded the Thames Gateway Greenspace Strategy. This provides overarching guidance to local delivery vehicles on integrating greenspace into development plans, and will be followed up by local implementation plans. Part of this strategy involves the "Greening the Gateway Action Plan" currently being developed by ODPM and Defra, which concentrates on managing the greenspace in the Thames Gateway. One of the main objectives of this plan is to ensure that all recreational green spaces are easily accessible and that the benefits of accessing greenspace to health are promoted.

  22.  The Forestry Commission supports the development of urban forestry especially through the 12 community forests. The Countryside Agency also worked with ODPM on the allocation of £11.5 million of green space funding for the new growth areas.


  23.  The Sustainable Communities Plan provides an opportunity for realising many benefits, in particular for developing and improving new environmental standards for housing.

June 2004

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