Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 379)



  Q360  Chairman: In your memorandum you said to us that you had three aims in relation to housing: to ensure that new communities are as sustainable as possible, particularly in eco efficiency terms, I assume you also mean new houses as well.

  Mr Morley: That is right.

  Q361  Chairman: To promote sustainable infrastructure and to minimise adverse environmental consequences. How are you setting about achieving those aims?

  Mr Morley: The new communities is a good term because when you are talking about new developments and new build and if you take as an example the Thames Gateway proposals and the four new communities, the word communities is quite deliberate. If you are developing sustainable housing then you need to look at it again as a whole. You have to take into account the transport links, water, resource management, green spaces, recreation, how you can also get a number of objectives in that. Green spaces can give you buffer zones in relation to flood management, it can be used for sustainable urban drainage, it can be used for cycleways and it can be used for recreation. So you can build all these things in. There is also the issue of schools and medical provision that you have to build within a community. There are a number of government bodies and government committees which are designed to bring together all the various parts of government and our agencies that have an interest in all these areas so that we achieve those three principal objectives.

  Q362  Chairman: Are you confident that those objectives will be achieved?

  Mr Morley: I think we should never be over-confident because I think there is always a need to review where you are, I think there is a need to challenge your structures and there is a need to test the delivery. I have been an MP since 1987 and I have seen the Government move away from a silo approach over that period of time towards a much more collegiate approach and I would like to think that has accelerated in recent years because of the recognition that some of the struggles in the past have not really delivered. Indeed, in the past it is certainly fair to say that there was minimal consultation between government departments in terms of the formulation of a strategy and we can see that in some bad planning that has taken place in years gone by. I should emphasise that this is a dynamic process. There are always going to be arguments about the best structures for an integrated delivery, but I have no doubt at all that the need for a change has been accepted within the structure of Government.

  Q363  Chairman: There is still bound to be nip and tuck and compromise and give and take. I noticed that this first aim of yours, which is "to ensure that new communities are as sustainable as possible", implies that they might not be very sustainable at all in some circumstances. If we are building huge numbers of houses, we have a duty to ensure that they are sustainable. They cannot be only a bit sustainable.

  Mr Morley: That is absolutely right. You are going to get tensions and cost, of course, is one of the key tensions in that there is some nervousness about the kind of standards that you apply to buildings and the impact that will have on the price of the homes.

  Q364  Chairman: We have had evidence to suggest that you can make a sustainable house at very little extra cost. We will happily pass it on to you.

  Mr Morley: I do not necessarily accept that is a major problem myself because—and I am sure you have had evidence, indeed I have seen the evidence myself—it does not take into account the fact that there are cost savings to the people who live in those homes and you will recover the extra costs in due course. I am a very strong advocate of raising standards in relation to building standards and design but also in the way that communities are planned and developed. There are some external costs as well, not least issues of transport which are being taken into account in things like the Thames Gateway development.

  Q365  Mr Challen: What are Defra's concerns with the implications of the Barker report?

  Mr Morley: The Barker report advocates a very large expansion of housing and addresses the fact that new build has dropped to historically low levels. The Barker report in my view could perhaps have given a bit more attention to the environmental and sustainable aspects. It is touched upon in relation to the report, but there is no detail within the Barker report. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more of that.

  Q366  Mr Challen: Defra commissioned its own report from Entec and in their Executive Summary they say that the subject of the study is very broad, but you only gave them six weeks of desk space to do their work. Given that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is allowing 12 months for responses to Barker, why was Entec's remit so short?

  Mr Morley: Do you want to comment on that, Sheila?

  Ms McCabe: The reason why it was so short and why it was just an overview was that ministers were going to discuss the follow up at the MISC22 meeting and our ministers needed to be informed of the environmental impact of the Barker proposals for those discussions. We have always said that Entec is just a first step, it is a global assessment. I am talking actively with ODPM and with Treasury about ways in which we can elaborate and refine that research.

  Mr Morley: It was designed as a scoping study to give you an idea of the on-going debate, but you could not make it too long otherwise you would miss that information as part of the debate on this.

  Q367  Mr Challen: Was this a case of trying to set the agenda or simply responding to Barker?

  Mr Morley: It is responding to Barker, but it does help set the agenda because, of course, the Entec Report does quantify the kind of savings that you can get in broader society terms from the higher standards in relation to the buildings. It is very useful to have some quantification of that.

  Q368  Mr Challen: In your memorandum to us you said that further work may be necessary. Are you now saying that that work will be carried out, and will it be a much more substantive report?

  Mr Morley: I think it is inevitable there will be further work on this.

  Ms McCabe: We are discussing with colleagues what work is needed. Some sectors, like energy, are quite advanced; other sectors are not so advanced, such as waste. We will need to consider it and ministers will need to think what their priorities are.

  Mr Morley: Water is quite vast.

  Q369  Mr Challen: Is that further report going to be jointly commissioned by yourselves and the ODPM or is it going to be a Defra report?

  Ms McCabe: It is our wish to have joint research. This is a cross-government project. We want to do it in concert with our colleagues.

  Q370  Mr Challen: Do you find that there is enthusiasm within the ODPM for such a report?

  Ms McCabe: Yes, certainly. The Deputy Prime Minister himself has made a reference to better efficiency.

  Q371  Mr Challen: How has that manifested itself? Could you give us some examples of things that have come out of your joint discussions which bears that out?

  Mr Morley: I think the Deputy Prime Minister as far back as 1997 launched the water summit which addressed the whole problem of water supply in relation to communities and identified, for example, the unacceptably high level of leakages that there were. There has been a 20% reduction in water leakage since 1997. That is very important in terms of areas like the South and South East because this is a water stressed area and it is important as a way of addressing the issue of sustainability and also setting up such things as the Better Buildings Task Force where that was also an issue from the very beginning. That was a joint initiative and the Deputy Prime Minister was very involved in that.

  Q372  Chairman: On the question of how joined up the Government is when it approaches these matters, given your responsibility and your personal commitment to environmental consideration which is well known, do you not feel disappointed that the Government was capable of commissioning a report into housing which had clearly enormous implications for the environment and sustainability without asking for the environment to be taken into account?

  Mr Morley: In the Barker report?

  Q373  Chairman: Yes.

  Mr Morley: The Barker report did actually consider the environmental and sustainability challenges, but it is fair to say that the report did not address that particular dimension in detail, that is true.

  Q374  Chairman: That is disappointing, is it not?

  Mr Morley: It is disappointing in the sense that that is of particular interest to myself and to Defra. It does considerably widen the scope of the report and that adds to the costs and timescales as well.

  Q375  Chairman: It is also of considerable importance to millions of people whose communities will be affected by Barker's recommendations if they are adopted by Government.

  Mr Morley: That is absolutely right. Barker's recommendation was predominantly, although not exclusively, on housing demand and housing supply. In relation to how that is met through the Government's structures, it is absolutely essential and an integral part of the delivery that sustainability factors are built into that. That is a role that we have in terms of being part of that, it is a role we have taken very seriously and it is a role we are very keen to push the boundaries of as well.

  Q376  Chairman: What role did you have in setting the terms of reference of Barker? It was a report commissioned by the ODPM and the Treasury, was it not?

  Mr Morley: It was. I think we were consulted on the report, were we not?

  Ms McCabe: Not on the terms, but we were consulted in the course of it.

  Q377  Chairman: You were not consulted about the terms of reference of the Barker report?

  Mr Morley: Apparently not.

  Q378  Paul Flynn: The report is published as an Entec report rather than a Defra one. Was that your intention when it was first commissioned?

  Mr Morley: It is an independent body that we finance, so it is their report.

  Q379  Paul Flynn: What specifically in the report are you unhappy with?

  Mr Morley: We are not particularly unhappy with the report. It is an independent report.

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