Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460 - 476)



  Q460  Mr Challen: We have already read in your report that building companies do not invest in skills, they do not invest in health and safety, they do not invest in customer satisfaction. They certainly do not invest in the environment, in making their houses spectacularly better, which we know is possible from the experience of other countries. Who is going to pay for that investment if we do not have a mechanism which is directly levied on house builders? They have demonstrated that they are not willing to do it themselves. Surely they should be forced to do it?

  Ms Barker: Let us split this up. In terms of skills, again I am hoping that house builders will come back and demonstrate that they are willing to do it themselves. It should also be clear that if they do not demonstrate that they are willing to do it themselves issues such as the construction industry training levy should be looked at. I do not disagree with you about that.

  Q461  Mr Challen: What sort of timescale would you look at? How long should they be on probation?

  Ms Barker: The review gives different probation periods for different things. In terms of the context of the whole process of the review, we know that during next year we are expecting to see government come back in terms of these proposals. The builders themselves also, I think, should be coming back with proposals on how they are going to deal with construction in that time period. There was another question there which I have forgotten.

  Q462  Mr Challen: I think it was about self-regulation.

  Ms Barker: You asked a question about why they do not meet the energy requirements. I do not talk about this in the review but I will extend my remit and give you my views. I think it is not fair to say that none of them makes any effort on energy and water supply. Different builders make different plans on energy and water supply. There is some evidence, however, to suggest that the ongoing benefits that customers get when they buy a house which is more energy and water efficient are not very easily gained back in the prices you charge. That suggests to me that the right way forward is in terms of making the regulations stronger so that everybody is forced to meet them, because in that sense the market is unlikely to meet them in a straightforward economic sense where the market does not come up with the right answer. I might be sympathetic to that but, as I say, I am extending widely beyond my review and perhaps I should stop.

  Q463  Mr Challen: I was thinking earlier on that perhaps we should have a supplementary Barker report on the environmental issues. You have said that you regret not having included more on that. Do you think that would be a good idea? Would it be accepted by the ODPM?

  Ms Barker: I certainly think there should be an assessment on the environment and that is what the review says.

  Q464  Chairman: Beyond the Entec Report, which obviously we already have?

  Ms Barker: Yes, certainly beyond the Entec Report. It is clear that the Entec Report itself did not think that that was the final word on the issue. I hope that the writers of the report would agree with me.

  Q465  Chairman: There is an idea. Perhaps we should recommend that DEFRA commissions you to do an environmental report on housing, if they dare.

  Ms Barker: It is very kind of you to think of that.

  Q466  Mr Challen: You said in your report and in your memorandum to us that if we were to build at the highest level of an additional 120,000 homes a year that would only involve the use of an additional 0.75% of land in the south east over the next ten years. Can you give us some more detail about how you arrived at that figure of land usage, in terms of housing densities and so on?

  Ms Barker: I should straightforwardly say that that was on an assumption which I pointed out was unrealistic, that all the development was done in the south east, which, as you will be well aware, I am not recommending. It was not an attempt to try and draw rather emotive comments about concreting over the south east. It was just an attempt to give a perspective to that. On what densities I used, the density I used was 30.

  Q467  Mr Challen: Your report states that you have made an allowance for related infrastructure. Are you able to give us a bit more detail about the related infrastructure?

  Ms Barker: I am afraid I cannot give you any more detail on that. I was given an estimate from the ODPM because I asked them a question as to what they would normally allow, when they were thinking about these land use issues, for transport infrastructure.

  Q468  Mr Challen: So they would provide a standard figure to X number of dwellings?

  Ms Barker: Yes.

  Q469  Mr Challen: You did not look at that in any detail?

  Ms Barker: I did not, no.

  Q470  Mr Challen: Finally, looking at brownfield land, some house builders clearly think it is too expensive and too difficult, and indeed lots of grants are made towards the regeneration of brownfield land. In looking at the use of brownfield land and the difficulties it poses and, reading your report, the fear that perhaps greenfield land would be more built on, have you perhaps paid too much attention to the view of house builders and the difficulties that they say exist in developing brownfield land?

  Ms Barker: It is not just builders who think there are difficulties in building on brownfield land and achieving regeneration. If you have to remediate a site because industry has done environmental damage to it in the past, that is a very clear cost. In terms of the review, since I support the continuation of the 60% build on brownfield policy, there is a proposition for a consideration of further tax credit for the use of contaminated land in order to bring that back. Clearly, bringing contaminated land back is a costly business. No, I do not think I did. What I did not want to do in the report was to duck the point that if we are going to increase the rate of house building inevitably we will increase the number of houses built on greenfield land. I think to have asserted that it would be possible to do all this extra on brownfield land, given the evidence we have had from English Partnerships about the work that needs to be done to continue to bring brownfield land forward, would not be right. Equally, that does not mean that I do not think we should continue with the 60% build on brownfield land, which I think is absolutely possible.

  Q471  Mr Challen: But does your report in any way think there are any tensions in achieving that target? We know where house builders are coming from.

  Ms Barker: Yes, because if you are talking about doing a greater degree of building it will undoubtedly make it more difficult. That is part of the reason why the tax credit is important. One of the reasons that I would welcome the money that has gone into the Pathfinder projects is that what I think is not right is to say that you could achieve all this on brownfield land without some investment, and this investment is clearly worth making because of the environmental benefits you will get from it.

  Q472  Mr Challen: Finally, on VAT, there is a perverse incentive to build on greenfield. What are your thoughts on that?

  Ms Barker: There is quite a discussion about VAT in the report. There was a variety of reasons why finally VAT was not the route chosen, but one of the primary ones was that VAT is meant to be charged on the whole cost of the new house, whereas in some sense what you want to get back is something on the uplift of land values. Because the planning gain supplement is recommended to be charged at a lower rate on brownfield land, that is supposed in some sense to do the job of VAT on greenfield but I hope will do it rather better because the difficulty with charging VAT on the whole house is that it would have more of an impact on housing in the north of the country and less of an impact in the south, which does not strike me as quite the right way forward in terms of what we want to achieve.

  Q473  Chairman: In relation to your 0.75% land take in the south east, and I appreciate this is illustrative, am I right in thinking that that equates to the 70,000 hectares that has been used elsewhere?

  Ms Barker: I am afraid I do not have that number absolutely in my mind.

  Q474  Chairman: It equates to half the size of Buckinghamshire. Put like that it sounds a bit bigger.

  Ms Barker: If half the size of Buckinghamshire is the same as that, that would be the right answer, but I am afraid I do not know. I apologise.[3]

  Q475  Chairman: There have been a number of points during our conversation when you have said you would like to have done something and did not have time to do it. Would you have liked more time overall to have done your report?

  Ms Barker: I am sure every reviewer would like more time to do their reports. One of the things I recognised early on was that this report could offer grandiose ideas, and you think, "Fantastic. That will solve every problem to do with housing supply". I very quickly realised that housing supply is a desperately complex issue. Every answer was not going to be given. I did not make an attempt to provide every answer. What I tried to do was provide an answer for what I felt was the core of my remit.

  Q476  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. We may have some further questions for you which, if you do not mind, we will put in writing.

  Ms Barker: Sure.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

3   Note by the witness: The 0.75% of the South-East figure (cited in the final report, pg 24) refers to the proportion of the present developable, but underdeveloped (essentially greenfield) land in the South-East that would be absorbed over the next 10 years by the higher rate of additional private sector building proposed, 120,000 houses per year. This is on the highly unrealistic, and indeed undesirable, scenario that all the additional development occurs in the South-East. It also assumes 60% of development takes place on previously developed (brownfield) land, that development takes place at a density of 30 per hectare, and includes an allowance for related infrastructure. This equates to a little over 10% of Buckinghamshire. ODPM data indicates that the area of Buckinghamshire is 187,000 hectares. Back

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