Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 743 - 759)



  Q743  Chairman: Good afternoon. Thank you both very much for coming. We appreciate that you are both return visitors so we are particularly grateful but since we last saw you a number of things have happened on the whole question of housing and sustainable communities. We have taken quite a lot more evidence and there are some issues which we would like to pick up as a result of subsequent information we have received. During the course of the inquiry, we have begun to look with growing interest at the Sustainable Communities Plan. What do you mean collectively by the word "sustainable" in the context of sustainable communities?

  Lord Rooker: It might sound a bit crude but it is almost a sound bite. It is sustainable if it carries on going after we walk away, we being the government plus our agencies and our delivery vehicles. In the past, things have been done in terms of development, whether new towns or urban regeneration projects for that matter, that have not been sustainable because when the scheme has stopped things have not worked out as intended and things have gone backwards. It depends what developments we are looking at. If we are looking at the growth areas or the pathfinders, it is still the same issue, although it is tackled from a different direction. We want places that people want to live in, where there is no over-reliance on community, where there is a good mixture of properties to work in, because it is not a house building programme, and a good mixture of developments for living in, both in terms of price and tenure. We are making the best use of the assets we have—ie, we are building at higher densities so we are not using land. We are building on brown field first, as we repeatedly made clear when we came originally. I would draw the Committee's attention to the 12 points on page five of the Sustainable Communities Plan about what makes a sustainable community which are essentially places that people will want to live in and like living in.

  Q744  Chairman: What I am trying to see is if any relationship exists between the Sustainable Communities Plan and the principles of sustainable development.

  Lord Rooker: There is not a contradiction. In the Sustainable Communities Plan we would ensure that we want sustainable development. Those who would argue that they want all developments to be sustainable could quite rightly say, "We do not want the communities plan because that implies growth and extra housing and we want just sustainable development." Our view is that within the Sustainable Communities Plan our developments will be sustainable developments. It is approaching it from a slightly different direction. If you take the other view—and I am not saying it is wrong or anything—and concentrate just on sustainable development, you could take a view that, if that is the case, that is the be all and end all and we do not think, for example, that maybe there should be any growth. Our responsibility is to have a look at the wider picture but to make sure the operation of the practical effect of the Sustainable Communities Plan and what happens under it is indeed sustainable development.

  Mr Morley: I do not think there is a contradiction between sustainable development and sustainable communities because you get an opportunity with new development, if you approach it in a sustainable way, of addressing issues such as the potential for  reducing transport movements, the potential for   strengthening communities, community involvement, the potential in relation to energy use, water use. There are real opportunities in terms of sustainable communities which are part of the agenda for sustainable development.

  Q745  Chairman: To what extent did the sustainable development strategy inform the Sustainable Communities Plan?

  Mr Morley: The sustainable development strategy is currently up for consultation.

  Q746  Chairman: But there is still a strategy out there until it is replaced by the new one.

  Mr Morley: There is still a strategy out there and that does obviously influence the Sustainable Communities Plan, particularly in issues such as water use, energy use and transport use, brown field use and building standards, which are part of that agenda

  Q747  Chairman: When we last met you, Mr Morley, you appeared to be at least semi-detached from this whole process, departmentally if not personally.

  Mr Morley: I do not accept that. There is joint working between Defra and ODPM. There is a joint ODPM/Defra group that has commissioned further research particularly into taking forward the Entec findings.

  Lord Rooker: The Sustainable Communities Plan is a big picture. It is a road map. It does not detail sites. It does not go down to that specific level where you would come to judge developments. It is not at the regional, spatial strategy level. You would not be able to apply the test of sustainable development to developments there because developments are not in the plan. Everything we are doing from the publication of the plan in February last year we can point back to flowing from the plan, but the detail of the operation, whether it is the pathfinders, whether it is the greening agenda, whether it is the working growth areas, at that level, when one starts to look at site specific developments and subregional strategies, then you start to look at sustainable development but you really cannot pin that down in the plan. It is too high level in that sense.

  Mr Morley: There has been a group working through the Central Local Partnership between the government and the LGA looking at the whole issue of defining the aspects of sustainable development and sustainable communities. It was jointly chaired by Alan Michael and Keith Hill from ODPM and Defra. That is another example of two departments working together with local authorities in terms of trying to flesh out some of these concepts. There will be a paper published very shortly on this which is something the Committee might be interested in.

  Q748Chairman: It would be helpful if you could give us a note setting out all the areas where Defra have been involved in the whole process of planning and rolling out the Sustainable Communities Plan.

  Lord Rooker: It is not just Defra. We can provide you with the role of other government departments. This is not just an issue between ODPM and Defra. This is a government plan, not an ODPM plan with Defra tagging along. It does not work like that. There is a host of other government departments involved. We are quite happy to give you a list of a brief overlay of how other government departments are working in concert, in co-partnership, to deliver the communities plan.

  Q749  Gregory Barker: Jonathan Porritt, appointed by the Prime Minister to bring his expertise to play on these issues of sustainability which can descend into meaningless sound bites, is on record as saying that the aspiration to be less unsustainable is not the same thing as the aspiration to be sustainable. If you measure the environmental footprint of a sustainable community, would you not agree that it is very far from being sustainable? They are poles apart.

  Lord Rooker: I have not got a clue what that question is about.

  Q750  Gregory Barker: Is it not about mitigating one project and saying it is less bad than others? Making something less bad is not about making it sustainable.

  Lord Rooker: We are not starting with a clean sheet of paper as far as the communities plan is concerned. This is not an issue just for the growth areas. It also includes pathfinders up north. Here, we have communities that have become unsustainable. They were sustainable in the past. The towns of east Lancashire were absolutely sustainable. They have become unsustainable because of changes in demography and manufacturing.

  Q751  Gregory Barker: You are talking about economically sustainable, are you not, not environmentally sustainable?

  Lord Rooker: No. It is either sustainable or it is not. I do not pick and choose. Being environmentally sustainable means it is very important but some of these collapses in areas where we have non-sustainability both of people and the environment are because nothing has been done to clean up what has happened in the past on the brown field sites. Part of the communities plan is to address that. I do not really understand the quote you give from Jonathan Porritt. You could ask for particular examples and I will get you a note on specific examples. Okay, we are not 100% perfect in every area where we are working, but we are working to a set of goals set out in bullet point 4.1 on page five of the communities' plan which I made sure everyone was provided with. We are not going to hit a strike rate of 100% on every occasion.

  Q752  Gregory Barker: If you are talking about your sustainable communities in the south east the Environment Agency has said in their State of the Environment Report in 2004 that, because of the impact on water supply in the south east, it is going to be like a time bomb. By 2015, there will be a huge water deficit. There is no way that building something that will add to that deficit could in any way, shape or form be described as sustainable.

  Mr Morley: They said that on the basis that there would be no improvements. What the Environment Agency is talking about there is that you have to put advance planning in in relation to water supply and water infrastructure and also improve water use in relation to building design and standards. All those aspects are part of the plan. It is not as if it is standing still. If it was standing still with no improvements, that would be a problem but that certainly is not the intention. The Agency is right to point that out.

  Q753  Gregory Barker: You are saying that your improvements will mitigate above and beyond the extra houses that are being built?

  Mr Morley: Extra houses will not be built without the infrastructure provisions to service them, including water supply and a long term water strategy on which there is a 25 year plan in terms of making sure that is in place.

  Q754  Gregory Barker: What good is a 25 year plan if the crisis comes in 2015?

  Mr Morley: Because that is part of planning now in relation to looking ahead. There is probably not an immediate problem in relation to water supply now but the south east is a water stressed area. Therefore, you cannot be complacent about the future demands, taking into account things like climate change. All those are factored into long term planning which in water supply is over a 25 year period which does not start from now, incidentally. It goes back some considerable time, so we are working towards a long term strategy in relation to water supply.

  Q755  Gregory Barker: Bringing you back to the stage of 2015, this is the Environment Agency for which you are responsible that has described it as an environmental time bomb.

  Mr Morley: It was a regional office. It was not the Environment Agency centrally that said that.

  Q756  Gregory Barker: You are not responsible for that?

  Mr Morley: I am not responsible for the regional offices of the Environment Agency. They are an independent agency accountable to government. They are free to give their opinion but if you look at that press release which I have in some detail you will see that is on the basis of not forward planning. That is not going to be the situation.

  Q757  Gregory Barker: You do not accept that adding hundreds of thousands of extra houses is going to add to the demand on already water stressed—?

  Mr Morley: Of course it is going to add to the demand but you are suggesting that we are not going to do anything about it and ignore the situation. I am telling you that is not the case.

  Q758  Chairman: There may be a misunderstanding here. The quote about the time bomb goes as follows: "The development of 800,000 new homes in the south east could set off an environmental time bomb." It comes from the Environment Agency's State of the Environment 2004 Report, not from a regional agency at all.

  Mr Morley: I accept that. My understanding was that it was a regional press release.

  Q759  Chairman: There was a regional press release as well which also provided some robust advice about over-development in the south east.

  Lord Rooker: Everything is a time bomb if you do not do anything about it.

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