Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760 - 779)



  Q760  Chairman: Where are you proposing to put the new reservoirs?

  Mr Morley: There are sites identified for new reservoirs in the next 25 years, although they are long term, and there is a great deal of other action that can be taken in terms of reducing water leakage, for example, before you would need those reservoirs.

  Q761  Chairman: In the ODPM's response to the Egan recommendations, you state, "The ODPM is  considering the links between sustainable communities and sustainable development via a ministerial subgroup of the central local partnership." Can we take from this that over a year and a half after publishing the Sustainable Communities Plan you still do not know what the links are?

  Lord Rooker: You seem to think that we published the plan on 5 February last year, as we did, and everything happened the day after. Life is not like that. This plan transcends generations. We are talking about decades. This is not a plan for five or 15 years. Figures in the plan were going up to 2021 and beyond. Therefore, putting issues in place to get the plan working as we want, to get it right, is going to take time. It is a bit like assembling the delivery vehicles in the growth areas. Less than half of them have been set up and are running. We think that is going pretty great guns after 18 months.

  Q762  Chairman: I appreciate it takes time but if you do not ask the right questions in the first place you are not going to get the right answers. It is a little surprising that you are only considering the links between the Sustainable Communities Plan and the principles of sustainable development which were supposed to be at the very heart of government.

  Lord Rooker: That is why we asked John Egan to do his work after we published the plan, so that there was a big picture, a road map as it were, that people had to see what we were planning to make happen overall. There is a lot more that has flowed from that which we do not have the answers to at the present time.

  Mr Morley: It is also why we had the joint working group with the Local Government Association jointly chaired by Defra and ODPM. To quickly go back to the Environment Agency, it was the regional report, not the national report, in relation to the issues which were identified, which are exactly the same issues that we have identified as a government. If nothing was done, there would be those consequences they are predicting but that is not going to be the case. There is no difference between us in terms of the south east Environment Agency assessment and the government's assessment in the potential implications of development, which is why we will take steps to deal with it.

  Q763  Chairman: Do you not think that sustainable development should be the context from which everything else happens, not just something to have links with or to consider?

  Mr Morley: It must be the heart of policy, yes.

  Q764  Chairman: You are convinced that this whole sustainable communities' project is being taken forward with sustainable development as it is properly understood at the heart of it?

  Mr Morley: In terms of the way it has been approached in the ODPM, government generally, the LGA, the long term strategies, sustainable development has been put within the strategy in a way it has never been put before. Like Jeff, I would not claim that everything is perfect or that there are not issues that we need to address that have long term implications. Nevertheless, they are being addressed in the context of sustainable development which is not how they have been done in the past in many cases.

  Q765  Chairman: If sustainable development is at the heart of this process as it should be and at the heart of everything that the government does, why was the Sustainable Communities Plan launched outwith the context of sustainable development? You are playing catch up now.

  Lord Rooker: I do not accept that. You are twisting history. You are rewriting history to suit your own purposes, for whatever reason.

  Q766  Chairman: I have no purpose in this Committee other than—

  Lord Rooker: If you look at it purely from a context of sustainable development, you might take a view that we do not even want to consider extra homes for the population of this country. We will just let it wither on the vine, leaving aside the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are homeless. You say, "We only want sustainable development but we cannot do it with the population we have because there is too much population." Government cannot take that view. Our view is to go for sustainable communities in the round with environmental, social and transport infrastructure to make it the most sustainable, using different techniques to those that have been used in the past by governments of both parties, to ensure the ingredients and the building blocks of those sustainable communities are sustainable developments which start from that way round.

  Q767  Gregory Barker: Why did you focus them all in the south east?

  Lord Rooker: We have not. If you had read the Sustainable Communities Plan, which is in the vote office, you would know it has nothing to do with the south east. It is a national plan. It is the south east, the north, the pathfinders, urban and rural. If you think it is all about the south east, I invite you to go and have another look at it.

  Q768  Mr Challen: We are talking about sustainable development and I want to probe whether there is something different about sustainable growth because I suggest to you that those Lancashire towns that have been mentioned already probably experienced growth but it was not sustainable.

  Lord Rooker: It did not show at the time.

  Q769  Mr Challen: We did not have an enlightened government of the day, I do not suppose, but do you see a difference between sustainable growth and sustainable development?

  Lord Rooker: We are not going to have growth without the infrastructure. That is my mantra to the partners, whether it be in the pathfinder areas of the north, the north east, the north west or in the growth areas in the wider south east, because we know it will not work. If you grow too fast it is not sustainable. You will not have the schools, the hospitals, the green belt or the country parks that are needed. You will have the jobs in the wrong place. You will have massive communities and traffic jams, so it is possible to grow too fast. I fully accept that. Therefore, we do need to have a step change in production because every home in this country at the present time has to last on average 1,200 years. That is the reality. It must not go ahead of us being able to make sure it is sustainable for future generations.

  Q770  Mr Challen: You would say that the economic considerations maybe should not run ahead of the environmental? You said earlier on that we do not pick and choose between these things. Perhaps I could put to you a comment in the ODPM's submission to the Committee at paragraph seven where it says that there are important environmental dimensions but they are not to be regarded as placing an effective veto on addressing the problems of supply. Could you give an example of an important environmental dimension which is not to have any influence on the decisions of government in relation to sustainable communities?

  Lord Rooker: No. I meant what I said. We are not having growth without infrastructure. First of all, people will not believe us. Most of the growth, by the way, is going to be put there by the private sector. The money from central government and its agencies is astronomical but it is quite small compared to what would come over a 20 year period from the private sector. They will not invest unless they know we have a sustainable plan. I was on a site this morning in the Gateway that is half way finished. It was designed 15 years ago. It looked very modern but it did not look as modern as some of the ones I have seen since the plan came off the drawing board. These things take quite a while. I am not sure what that paragraph would allude to, only in the sense that there was some economic criterion, either for jobs or some particular project, and the infrastructure was not there at the time. Presumably, the project would not be economical.

  Q771  Mr Challen: What this paragraph is saying, in other words, is that supply is a more important consideration than important environmental dimensions. You would ignore important environmental dimensions if issues of supply were deemed to be so crucial?

  Lord Rooker: No. This comes back to our previous conversation. If you took the interpretation of that paragraph to be that sustainable development was the key, our view is we want sustainable communities, but we start from a premise in government. We have to have a step change in production. It is not a housing programme. We do not have the jobs and we do not have enough homes in the right place. That is happening now. There is growth going on that is unmanaged. This is why part of the communities plan is to get a grip on getting it managed so that it has sustainability, so that we can organise the infrastructure. You could start from the premise of saying, "We do not want the homes. There are too many. We have all the empties up north. We do not want a system of moving people round the country in that way." I do not accept that interpretation of that paragraph.

  Q772  Mr Francois: You said your mantra is constantly that the infrastructure must come first but it self-evidently has not.

  Lord Rooker: It has not in the past, no.

  Q773  Mr Francois: It certainly has not now either because most of the district and county councils now have all of their housing targets up to 2021. They have been told how many thousands they have to accommodate but they have not been told where the new reservoirs are going to be. They have not been told where the new roads are going to be. They have not been told where the new rail links are going to be and they have not been told where the new district general hospitals are going to be built. They have all the housing numbers but they do not know where the infrastructure is going to be. When will they find those details out?

  Lord Rooker: In time before the houses are lived in. I mean that seriously. You may laugh but the planning for where there are new district general hospitals or whether we need new district general hospitals, as opposed to adding to the ones we already have, because there is a central point there—if you are not very careful, you do not get the consultants in the right place with enough throughput into them—the planning for that, particularly in the growth areas, is already going on. In one growth area alone, there is a major programme of work of roughly just under £1 million to make sure that the health infrastructure is in the right place for what we envisage will happen within a 20 year period at the same time as work going on to see whether road links and indeed railways links, some closed by Beeching, can be reopened because they go east west rather than north south. It is very difficult to move around this country east west. North south it is generally much easier. That planning is going on now by the relevant agencies and the Department of Transport at a regional and subregional level. It is not as politically sexy as house numbers and therefore it does not get reported in the sense that the views of regional assemblies do. I understand people have rightly said in the past that the infrastructure was not there on time and has not kept pace. It is our task to ensure that we can convince people we have learned the lessons from the past—I genuinely mean that—the lessons from Milton Keynes mark one and London Docklands mark one. Those are burnt on everybody who is involved particularly in growth areas and trying to learn these lessons for the housing market and pathfinders in the north.

  Q774  Mr Francois: I want to give you a practical example because I am not going to let you off the hook that easily. If you look at the Thames Gateway, with which I am quite familiar, a lot of house building is going on already. There is massive house building envisaged. Everybody in the area knows there has to be at least one new district general hospital. That is almost without dispute. Everybody knows the lead time for doing that will be quite a few years to decide a site, to lay it out, to build it, to staff it and then for it to go live and accept patients. No one yet knows where it is going to be. It is going to take years as it is. Why do they not know where it is going to be, as a real practical, hard example? Secondly, with regard to rail links, we had Sir John Egan here and he said that we needed to increase capacity on the rail lines going into London from the Gateway. It was vitally important to do that. When we asked him exactly how that was going to happen he said he did not have a clue.

  Lord Rooker: On the hospital, I do not know what part of the Gateway you are referring to. You obviously know the Gateway a lot better than I do, I freely admit. I did the Gateway in a helicopter two and a half years ago.

  Q775  Mr Francois: The northern bit of the Gateway, south Essex.

  Lord Rooker: I was there again today. It is not part of my daily role now so I am not so familiar. What I do know though is that the way the Gateway has been developed is not on one great big block. There might be an overviewing partnership arrangement but it has been split into 14 areas of change. There are a couple of UDCs in there. All the others are by and large partnership arrangements led by local authorities, not exclusively involved in the private sector, in looking at their orbit of influence. These are quite large areas, as you can imagine. We are talking about large numbers of dwellings. Within the context of that work that is going on, the planning for the health services, the road network and indeed the rail network, part of which I was looking at this morning at Ebbsfleet, is going on apace now. I went to the Gateway two years ago, having not been at all familiar with it, and saw brand new, waterfront developments. Great. They obviously were planned. Planning permission may have been ten years ago. It was true that the Gateway was designated by Michael—now Lord—Heseltine some time ago but it was never managed. You can find growth areas where developments are going on now that had planning permission ten years ago, not part of the Sustainable Communities Plan. Our problem is to explain to people that growth is happening anyway. If we do not get it managed then we do not stand a chance of getting the hospitals, the schools and the road network.

  Q776  Mr Challen: Regarding Defra's role in the Sustainable Communities Plan, can I ask Mr Morley whether or not sustainable growth has now been adopted as Defra's aim in regard to this. I notice in the Defra submission the five strategic priorities for creating sustainable communities do not include any  kind of environmental reference at all. Is the more   economic interpretation superior to the environmental?

  Mr Morley: No. The definition of sustainability is the three strands of sustainability: economic, social and environmental. Therefore, you have to have those three strands in the approach that you take. The three strands are certainly there within the Sustainable Communities Plan. We are working on that basis, trying to put in the sustainable development approach on all aspects of this and in fact all aspects of government policy.

  Q777  Mr Challen: You would not agree with the charge then that Defra has been sidelined since the Barker review and with the development of this housing agenda Defra has failed to make its mark?

  Mr Morley: I do not agree. Defra has commissioned the Entec report, for example, which is very useful. It needs further work which is why we have now commissioned further research jointly with ODPM. In relation to defining a long term strategy in relation to sustainable development and sustainable communities, we are working with the LGA, quite an appropriate body to work with because they are a very important part of delivering the equation on this, and also with ODPM, which is why we have a joint chair of the working groups with Keith Hill and Alan Michael.

  Q778  Mr Challen: You mentioned the Entec report. It was referred to as an initial assessment.

  Mr Morley: That is right.

  Q779  Mr Challen: That was some time ago. How is it being followed up?

  Mr Morley: By commissioning further research to refine some of their findings and look at the impacts. The Entec report was a wide range of very broad scenarios. It was a useful report. I found it quite interesting in looking at the quite considerably reduced impact of development by applying different standards of eco-building in particular.

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