Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 581 - 599)



  Q581  Chairman: Welcome, Sir John, and I am sorry that we have kept you waiting. We may be interrupted by a further vote in due course but we hope to make some progress before then. Thank you also for your memorandum. As you know, we are looking at the whole question of housing policy particularly in the light of the Sustainable Communities Plan and the Barker Review and we were very interested therefore in the findings of your report. Can you just tell us by way of introduction why your review and its report were thought to be necessary.

  Sir John Egan: I think there was a general feeling within the construction and house building community that there were not enough skills to allow the agenda to be delivered. The general view was that it was lack of town planners and things like this. We came to the conclusion that it was not lack of town planners which had created the appalling mess of the last 40 years, it was more to do with not town planning skills but general management skills of achieving some kind of objective. If the end point of the planning system had been just to create wealthy lawyers, then that is what it did, but nobody set out to do that. The planning system was there for another reason and that other reason was never made very clear.

  Q582  Chairman: To what extent did you set out your own remit and to what extent was it defined by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister?

  Sir John Egan: This is the second report I have done for the Government and I have usually found it better to look around the problem and then choose, in a way, my own objectives. What I find is that you have to have a very clear goal if you are going to achieve anything at all and I wanted to make sure that the Government's goal in sustainable communities was correct. I wanted to know who should be trying to carry it out. I wanted to know what processes existed for carrying out the goal. Then I wanted to know what skills therefore were needed. So, I thought that if I just went straight to the skills part, I would not know what the context for the skills agenda was going to be. Therefore, I looked at it in a sort of process way of goal, who was involved, what the processes were and thus what skills were required.

  Q583  Chairman: So you delivered your own remit, so to speak. It was not one that was set out for you.

  Sir John Egan: I developed a wider remit. I think the only interesting thing for us is, as I said the first time I made a public speech on the issue, that it is not often that governments have any good ideas and it is not often that they have any very big ideas, but here they have both a very big and a very good idea in sustainable communities and we discovered that our evidence very clearly demonstrated that the Government were on the right track with their sustainable communities agenda and it was more or less the kind of community that people wanted for themselves.

  Q584  Chairman: Although you kind of invented your own definition of sustainable community.

  Sir John Egan: No, we did not. We used the Government's definition and tried to make it more operational. If you are trying to create a goal that a number of people are going to achieve, then you have to be very clear about what it is and there were too many headings and too many trails. We reduced it to about seven major areas of concern. We would have preferred if we had had more time to reduce it to about five. It is difficult to remember seven and if you were to ask me right now what the magnificent seven were, I could probably only remember six.

  Q585  Chairman: We have a list.

  Sir John Egan: I would have preferred to get it down to about five. I think this goal concept is very, very important for good management. One of the critical skills I think is the skill of central government to delegate authority to local authorities and I do not think they are satisfactorily doing it today and I do not think any Government have over recent years. If you are going to delegate authority, you need to have a very clear remit and that clear remit is to achieve the goal of sustainable communities. That is why it is very important to operationalise it in order that that is what local government is actually asked to achieve.

  Q586  Chairman: One of the things that this Committee has come up against time and time again is the balance within the term "sustainable development" between economic and ecological values. We have said in the past and I suspect will say in the future that when there needs to be a trade-off between these two things, almost invariably economic values take priority. Is this something that you wrestled with?

  Sir John Egan: Yes but I would say that it is slightly more complicated than that. It is not just ecological values that are important, it is actually what the people themselves want. What is the way in which they want to live? When, for example, we looked deeply into various communities that we looked at and they were all pretty well the same, they were very clear as to what they wanted. They wanted first of all a place that was safe; secondly, was clean; thirdly, was friendly; fourthly, had open spaces for their children; and then a wide variety of services. Practically every community wanted these things. If you are going to create safe and clean places, the absolutely most important thing is governance. Who is going to make sure that they remain safe and clean? Who is going to give leadership? We often looked at communities of 10,000 or 15,000 people who have been dumped into a field with absolutely no thought given to the future governance of their lives with architecture which did not lead to friendliness and all kinds of things that absolutely spelt the failure of this particular development. So, ecological is not the only thing. We also should put in the needs of the people which are very clearly spelt out when you ask.

  Q587  Chairman: I have the list of your magnificent seven here and, at least in this version of the list, economic values come send to the bottom.

  Sir John Egan: They are in a circle. None of them is any more important than the other.

  Q588  Chairman: That itself is a very important statement.

  Sir John Egan: Absolutely.

  Q589  Chairman: Historically, when push comes to shove, economics has always taken priority.

  Sir John Egan: Well, can I point to another problem and that is the efficiency with which things are done. Our building industry is not particularly efficient. I wrote a report on this about five or six years ago when we basically pointed to the fact that the world cost of something was probably half of what we could achieve with a reasonable project in the UK. My worry is that everything is costing far more than it need do because of the poor planning and management of the whole system. Much of this has been improved in the private sector amongst repeat clients but not much has yet been done, or the same big strides have not been made in the public sector nor have they been made in the housing sector. They have made good strides but not as big strides as the big private clients in the construction industry. So, the economics in a way could be very secondary if we could improve the efficiency with which buildings are put up.

  Q590  Chairman: You said that none of the seven is more important than any of the others.

  Sir John Egan: No.

  Q591  Chairman: But where do you think the greatest challenges lie? In which of the seven is the greatest challenge? Is it governance that you have already mentioned?

  Sir John Egan: I would have said that really the most important one around which to balance the rest is future prosperity and that is economics. That you should be planning for the long-term prosperity of your community is the, as it were, key idea, but that is only that if you do not have prosperity, you cannot have any of the rest but I would not actually say that any one was particularly more important than the others apart from that.

  Q592  Chairman: I was not really asking that. I was asking where you thought the biggest challenge lay.

  Sir John Egan: In the northern cities, that is probably the biggest problem. In the southern cities, possibly environmental challenges might be more difficult.

  Q593  Chairman: Can I just come back to my first question and ask you about the remit again. You have told us helpfully about the way you took the remit and you developed it and you created an agenda, if you like, of your own, but how did that final agenda marry up to the original remit set by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister?

  Sir John Egan: We answered the examination question as put, what skills were required and by whom?

  Q594  Chairman: Was that the only question you were asked?

  Sir John Egan: Fundamentally, that was the question I was asked, yes.

  Q595  Chairman: So, you took what was a very narrow remit really and expanded it to something much larger and I have to say as a result much more useful.

  Sir John Egan: Yes, I thought it was. I thought that it was very important to establish that the Government were right in their sustainable community agenda. It was such a big, bold step for them to make that I thought it was very important that we actually supported that and then the whole debate could move on. I also thought it was important for us to say that local authorities were in the driving seat. A number of people thought, for example, that any time you need a big job doing, you should try and create a special vehicle to do it, but my evidence is that every society in the whole of the UK has been badly served for the last 30 or 40 years and every community has to be retrofitted if we are going to create communities for people to live in.

  Q596  Joan Walley: Can I just press you on that a little and ask you how what you have just said squares with the current—I do not know what the word is—fashion of having partnerships for all kinds of new projects and new initiatives, so that in fact much of what was traditionally championed by the local authorities when they were in the driving seat is now dispersed across a whole plethora of different partnerships and then the position between the regional development agencies, the local authorities and various bodies linked to the housing renewal programme. How does that fashion square with what you have said about local authorities in your opinion having to be in the driving seat?

  Sir John Egan: I think that the local authority has to, as it were, chair the cabinet of interest of national service givers. They, after all, have a remit from the people; they are actually voted into their position. Secondly, they have to give planning permission; it is in their hands. I think they should chair a cabinet of national service givers: obviously health, education, police, highways and so on should also take a common cause. That is why the goal of sustainable community is so important that everybody buys into the common goal of what they are trying to do.

  Q597  Joan Walley: What about special delivery vehicles that are being put forward as solutions to various problems?

  Sir John Egan: They are a shortcut. It is all right having big powers but I have noticed that, the bigger the power, the less people listen. What you really do need and I think the most important thing about this planning system is that we learn to engage with the population. We learn how to ask them what they require and we learn to deliver solutions that answer those requirements. If you mention planning or expanding any community to any community in the country, there is immediately a moment of horror as though whatever is going to happen will be not in their interests. We have to learn to listen to communities and find out what it is they want. Very often, those things can be developed through the planning system. For example, most communities of, say, 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 people think they are very happy and maybe they are. On the other hand, they have a lot of teenage crime, they have a lot of missing services and so on and so on and, if we wanted to give those people the services they required, we would probably have to expand their neighbourhood but, right now, I do not think anybody living in a small village would really want to see their community expanded because they would assume that it would be done badly. Looking at what we have done for the last 30 or 40 years, I would have to agree with them.

  Q598  Mr Francois: You talked about the principle of asking people in local communities what they want and then trying to respond to that within the planning system and I think all of us around this table would have some sympathy with that. In order for that to be valid and to be real, do you not also need the power for local people to be able to say "no" if they are offered something that they definitely do not want?

  Sir John Egan: Saying "no" is sometimes something that we cannot accept. There are national reasons sometimes why only "yes" is possible. So, there are national things that will overwhelm that. In the main, I would agree with you that no should mean no, but no should only mean if the issues have been properly described and the people have been listened to and a proper solution has been offered to them. Then, perhaps "no" is a reasonable word. If the national interest overcomes that, my only point then is, let us recompense them for the nuisance that they suffer. The problem with the British system is that it goes into the law, the right thing is done, as it were, according to the law and loser takes all as a general rule. You get the nuisance and, generally speaking, you have to pay for it as well. So that really is a pretty sore wound. That is one of the reasons why people really are frightened of the planning system.

  Q599  Chairman: Can I explore another angle of this. You said just a while back that economic prosperity was really the key thing and, when you ask people what they want, one of the things they clearly want is more economic prosperity and yet, at the Johannesburg Summit, we signed up to an agenda to do with sustainable consumption. To what extent do you factor sustainable consumption ideas into your thinking about the sustainable communities?

  Sir John Egan: If we can look at consumption in terms of CO2 emissions, then it is easier for us to grasp, as it were, what we consider. It is relatively easy to create a low CO2 emission community. From the engineering point of view, the issues are not so incredibly difficult, they are really relatively straightforward. The problem is that, to deliver such a community, we have to build the new buildings for that community. The supply chains that exist in the UK could not deliver; they could only deliver bricks and mortar, cement and things that are not, as it were, the sustainable products for the future community. We thought that, within eight years they could, and so what we should do with the environmental standards for buildings is slowly tighten the screw to the point where, in eight years' time, only sustainable components would be allowed into the building. For example, I do not know if you know that to make a ton of cement takes a ton-and-a-half of oil to create it. So, in using cement in your building, you are going to be consuming huge amounts of oil. If you are wasting half of it because most of what we build is only built at half the world levels of construction, then you are not sustainable to start with. So, what you have to do is be immensely more efficient and allow the supply chain to slowly get itself up to, say within eight years, achieving those sustainable standards. The Government have set up a sustainable buildings taskforce and we asked them if they could design the standards that would eventually lead to a low emission community. By the way, all kinds of other things are involved of course. We have tended to zone things in the UK, we have tended to put business parks in one place, we have tended to put houses in another, schools and hospitals we have often tended to put in the green belt and so on and so forth and the only thing that connects them all up, apart from London, is cars, so people drive around them all and it has become a nightmare in many small towns to find that you can only get from one part of this community by car. That is not sustainable either nor is it very friendly. These are points that are really very important and, if we are going to create sustainable communities, they will have to be mixed developments; they will have to be mixed in terms of socio-economic groups but they are also going to have to be mixed in terms of office blocks, shops and so on. When I said that we have to retrofit the communities, we have to start putting houses around retail centres and we have to actually start asking retailers to become leaders of their community and start turning their shops inside out and making them far more part of the community and not just hiding behind barbed wire fences.

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