Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 780 - 799)



  Q780  Mr Challen: What is the timescale of getting this further follow-up done to Entec? It seems to me that we are seeing some of the basic assumptions in the Barker review, for example, being adopted or accepted by government. Are we putting the cart before the horse?

  Mr Morley: The Barker review itself is a long term strategic approach rather than a prescriptive approach. It is a long term process in relation to how we do this. We are within the timescale but there are some quite important issues to address. There is work taking place in parallel to that, for example, with the Sustainable Buildings Task Force which I mentioned at the last meeting and their report is out. They have produced both a code of standards and proposals for raising building standards starting in 2005. There is a great deal of work taking place.

  Q781  Mr Challen: Can I ask if the terms of reference for this follow-up study have been set and could the Committee see them? When do you think the report of that follow-up would be completed?

  Mr Morley: The commissioning work is underway at the moment. In terms of the timescale, I would have to check that out for you and get back to you on it.

  Q782  Chairman: Is it Entec who is likely to be doing the work?

  Mr Morley: Entec could do the work. I have the timescale here. It is due to be completed in 2005, in good time to inform the Government's response to the Barker review. The consultants have not yet been chosen. Entec is a possibility.

  Q783  Mr Challen: Can I ask both of you a question about the new European Directive which only came into force in July 2004 which introduced strategic environmental assessments? I understand that the Scottish Executive has now decided that they will apply those to a great many regional plans, spatial plans and so on even when they are not required to. The Sustainable Communities Plan is a national plan which Lord Rooker has described as a big picture plan. Surely this is something that an SEA should be applied to and do you plan to do that?

  Lord Rooker: No.

  Q784  Mr Challen: Why not?

  Lord Rooker: Because it does not apply. There is a big distinction between the communities plan and the kind of things that it will be applied to like the site specific plans, the regional, spatial strategies. It is a big picture. It is high level and it is not at that level that you could apply that technique.

  Q785  Mr Challen: Is that not leaving a gap in the planning process and environmental assessment?

  Lord Rooker: No.

  Q786  Mr Challen: In my own area in west Yorkshire in the past we have been given housing targets, for example, which are the global targets for maybe five or six district councils and they have to accept them and divide them between themselves. That obviously becomes a very specific figure for each district. It seems that sometimes you have this wisdom flowing down the hierarchy and at each level we are told, "This is what you must accept. You decide locally how it fits in." How do you question it further up the scale? Surely something like an SEA would be a very useful tool, whether or not you are required to apply it by law, nevertheless to make that process transparent to all the rest of us who have to pick up the pieces lower down?

  Lord Rooker: You asked specifically about the communities plan, this document here. It could not apply to that. First of all, the community planning in terms of the planning system for the country as set out in the new Planning Act does not interfere with that. Therefore, we get all the planning processes through the planning system, whether it is the regional spatial strategy or the planning permissions. They have to be tested. You asked specifically about the plan.

  Mr Morley: It predates it as well.

  Lord Rooker: I am not arguing the predating because you can always do it retrospectively.

  Q787  Mr Challen: Would it not be good practice to do it anyway because that tells planners something about what they are expected to do? It tells me what I think the government's policy is. Surely that has an influence on these decisions further down the hierarchy?

  Lord Rooker: No because all the additional work and the development that will flow from the communities plan will be subject to that assessment. That is the detail. The building blocks will be subject to that assessment. You are asking specifically about this document. You could not apply it to this document.

  Q788  Mr Chaytor: The regional spatial strategies will be subject to the strategic environmental assessment process?

  Lord Rooker: Because they are part of the planning process, yes.

  Q789  Chairman: Could you not have suggested a choice of growth areas for a strategic assessment of this kind? Would that not have been helpful as to where they are?

  Lord Rooker: The growth areas were designated quite a long time ago. The Thames Gateway was designated a growth area—I do not know what particular date it was now—by Michael Heseltine, but nothing was done about making it a managed growth area. The other three growth areas were designated, so far as I am aware, by Stephen Byers prior to ODPM being formed. They were designated following consultants' reports which had all been  commissioned, so they were independent consultants' reports, on the issue of where extra growth could take place. A lot more detail has gone in since then. Those consultants' reports would have been commissioned probably in 2000 or maybe even 1999. Those consultants' reports came off the production line and the Milton Keynes one would have come off in 2002, before the communities plan was written, because I remember launching it in Northampton.

  Q790  Joan Walley: Is this not part of the problem ODPM has in balancing all of this? You mentioned earlier on about playing catch up. The government is constantly trying to put in place now, later, what should have been anticipated at a much earlier stage in the planning process in terms of the remits which went out to consultants all those years ago. How do you balance now trying to make good something which should have been fit for purpose at the time when the remits for the consultants' reports went out? How do you genuinely try to fit sustainable development into this catch up that you so rightly identified?

  Lord Rooker: We need to do that. I fully accept that. It is no good just saying, "This all happened a long time ago. We have a new system now and everything will happen from day one." The developments that are envisaged in the wider plan are over a 20 year period, somewhat longer in some cases, so there is plenty of opportunity. In order to manage the growth and the development, whether it be the pathfinders or the growth areas, we have set up quite specific, dedicated delivery vehicles. Not all of them have been set up because there is a parliamentary process for some of them. They have all been done by consensus, by the way. None has been imposed. I would take the view that those delivery vehicles will look at the large strategic sites and apply the new techniques, the new thinking. In other words, while the overall plan may have come too soon in that sense, as you are saying, when you get down to sites and subregions within the areas we will have more than enough time to take account of these new conditions. I think that is what they will want to work to.

  Q791  Joan Walley: Therefore, is not the challenge that faces you how to now get into the remit of those consultancy briefs that will be advising the new delivery mechanisms and how to get sustainable development practices into that in terms of balancing overall commitments towards the development of sustainable communities?

  Lord Rooker: Absolutely. We will launch some of the documents in draft form at the Sustainable Communities Summit at the end of January next year. Many of the delivery vehicles are local authority led. There are partnerships of local authorities with dedicated units. Others are Urban Development Corporations using the powers of corporations in conjunction with their partner local authorities. One of them is a sub-committee of English Partnerships. They will be working to the most up to date remits that we can give them.

  Q792  Joan Walley: That will include sustainable development?

  Lord Rooker: Absolutely.

  Q793  Mr Challen: I have been mulling over your last answer on this. Since the Scottish Executive has decided to apply this SEA system to areas which it is not legally bound to and in the light of one or two of your previous answers this afternoon when I was referring to the Entec report and Mr Morley said that the timescale of that would be researched in the follow-up but it would not interfere; or should I say the government would not adopt things from Barker prior to getting that information from that report, in paragraph six in your submission to this Committee you say that Barker recommended that the government adopt an affordability goal linked to housing supply at national level which would then inform development of regional housing targets. Those are very specific things. The beginning of paragraph seven says, "The government have accepted this recommendation." Those are paragraphs in your submission which say that the government has accepted what Barker was saying. This to me seems very specific and surely the Sustainable Communities Plan should be subject, given the problem we have with important environmental dimensions, to an environmental assessment. Why can it not be done?

  Lord Rooker: It would be and it will be when you get to site specific issues or subregional issues.

  Q794  Mr Challen: I am putting to you that that is too late because the guidance, the planning and all the rest of it that flows from government policy sets the framework in the context in which planners make  their decisions. Why leave the strategic environmental assessment to that late stage?

  Lord Rooker: You seem to assume that this plan is that prescriptive. It is not. It is a set of guidelines. It is a big picture plan. It does not give all the details. It gives broad principles of sustainable communities. That is the thing that underpins what we are trying to do in every avenue. When one comes to looking at the application and the practical effect of it, whether it is two years down the road or further, we can apply those principles. In respect of Barker, it is an independent review and the government will pronounce in detail on Barker towards the end of 2005. By then we will have done the work on the affordability goal. There is a huge amount of consultation going on at the present time on Barker. It is true. Barker of course starts from the communities plan. In other words, the indications of what is in her report build on what is already in the communities plan which was a modest amount of growth of 200,000 dwellings on that which was already planned, which was 900,000, so up to 1.1 million. She proposes even more. We have not pronounced on that in that sense. She takes as her starting point the delivery of the wider communities plan agenda. By definition, if you go to that extent, you have to make sure that you have as full an assessment of the programme and the practical development as you can possibly get. It would apply but we are not in a position yet to say about the government's detailed response to Barker which we said we would by the end of 2005. We looked on it as an 18 month process from when it was published at Budget time.

  Q795  Mr Challen: There certainly is a mismatch between the environmental considerations and what flows from Barker and this plan. Barker flows from this plan. That is the timing, is it not? She has written her report in the light of the Sustainable Communities Plan. She is making concrete recommendations and she is putting affordability issues before environmental issues. The Entec report follow-up is going to be heaven knows when and we are not sure what the terms of reference for that are either. Why in that case cannot this plan in the interim be subject to something like a rigorous examination under a structure that has been set up under this European Directive?

  Lord Rooker: Because it would not work. This plan is not a master plan. It is not a national spatial strategy. It is not written that way. You could not judge this plan against those techniques.

  Q796  Mr Challen: In other words, environmental considerations have been more or less completely sidelined in this process?

  Lord Rooker: No, they have not. I reject that completely and I invite you to read the plan.

  Q797  Gregory Barker: Mr Morley mentioned that you have published the code for sustainable building. Is that right? We have not had sight of it.

  Lord Rooker: We will have demonstrations of the code in the Gateway. We wanted it to be rolled out nationally. We also want to demonstrate it in the pathfinder area. We will not get a national roll out of the code until 2006.

  Q798  Gregory Barker: In your response to recommendations of the sustainable buildings task force you committed yourself to producing it by next January.

  Lord Rooker: We are going to produce a draft of the code at the Sustainable Communities Summit in Manchester.

  Q799  Gregory Barker: You will not be implementing it by early 2006?

  Lord Rooker: It would be voluntary anyway. We have to be careful about saying "We will implement." We will get a national roll out for 2006. By and large, one assumes there will be a full code following consultation and good practice and we will get the industry to work to it.

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