Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 820 - 839)



  Q820  Gregory Barker: What is the point of having targets then?

  Lord Rooker: Because we will set the target as a means of managing the programme so we can make some changes. The idea is to get change.

  Q821  Gregory Barker: Moving on then, the task force also recommended fiscal measures to encourage the use of the CSB when it is produced. Is their recommendation for a reduced Stamp Duty something you are pushing the Treasury for?

  Lord Rooker: We have constant discussions with the Treasury, every day of the year about what they are and what the details are. Frankly, you will have to ask a Treasury Minister, because I am not going into any detail.

  Q822  Chairman: Can I stick with the code for a little bit longer. For example, it would be interesting to know how it is going to work in practice. Can you give us an indication of what carbon minimisation you would expect to see arising from the application of the code?

  Lord Rooker: I do not know. I was dealing with this in the Housing Bill the other night, when I had all these figures in front of me. I honestly do not think I can answer that with that level of detail.

  Q823  Chairman: If you use the Energy Saving Trust best practice guidance, for example, you get a 20% reduction. Is that something you would like to see?

  Lord Rooker: I would like to see the maximum possible, and I do not say the maximum practical; the maximum possible. When the code is written, we will have to be judged by it as to whether we have gone far enough, as to whether we can make it work. It will be voluntary.

  Q824  Chairman: What account are you taking of all the various schemes that are out there at the moment aimed at increasing energy efficiency? There are various bodies out there, including the Energy Saving Trust, who have schemes which are running now. The BRE does as well.

  Lord Rooker: Exactly. The BRE have been involved on the task force putting the code together. I have been to developments, and I suspect many of the Committee have, places like BedZED, so there is an enormous amount of work going on out there. It is all fairly small-scale at the present time. I think BedZED was 81 or 83 dwellings. I would really love to see it at 5,081 dwellings and then see whether it works. When you talk about practicalities, and to make it sustainable, cost-effective and good for the environment, quite clearly, the ingredients are there for something very successful, but it is very small-scale, and one has to ask, as you lever up the economies of scale in some way, do you keep the same benefits to the community? I am assuming for the people on the task force, BRE and the others I mentioned, the Waste Resources Association, these are the very factors that they will want to put into the code. It is our job, and we will be happy to come back, obviously, at your wish, when we have the draft published.

  Q825  Chairman: Would you expect the Energy Savings Trust to be involved in the steering group?

  Lord Rooker: I would like to think so, yes.

  Chairman: I am sure they would as well.

  Q826  Mr Chaytor: Before we leave the code, one of the things I have difficulty understanding is the relationship between this code, which is going to take some time to develop, and the revision of the Building Regulations. The new ones will be published next year. There is a general consensus amongst all parties this is a good step forward and there will be a further step forward in three or four years. Is the code going to be in advance of the requirements of the Building Regs? Why can the Building Regs themselves not be the main vehicle for delivery? If we are going to have 1.1 million homes in the East and the South East that may have to abide by a code, and yet a tiny number of homes elsewhere that will be stuck with the Building Regs, what is exactly the relationship? Why a code? Is that not an admission that the Building Regs process is inadequate?

  Lord Rooker: I might be out of step here but, as I said, the code is voluntary; the Building Regs are not, of course. I believe in some ways we ought to be able to do more and should do more through the Building Regs. There is a problem, though it is not a problem that is insurmountable. There is always this fact that, each time you change the Building Regs or bring in modifications, you have got to be able to say to the industry, because they are building factories to make new products or altered product, "This won't change for a period time," otherwise why should they invest to make the products? You cannot have constant change, and that is a real problem in some ways, and that is part of using the legalistic approach. We are pledged—I do not know what the figure is—not to make a change within a certain number of years, and that is notwithstanding, of course, changes in technology that come along, and of course, it is new buildings. We ought to be doing more for existing buildings, which we do for refurbishment, obviously. We can cover that with the Building Regs with refurbishment, but we are still only scratching the surface of the 22 million dwellings in the country where we could do a lot better. In some ways, if we get a code that is voluntary, it is easier to change. You do need consensus, though, as I say, it is not the lowest common denominator. That would be quite unacceptable. I would not want to come back here and say we have gone for the lowest common denominator and we have got really poor energy figures and savings figures, because that is not what we are about. We want to maximise. The idea is to get some change, but to take industry along with us.

  Q827  Mr Chaytor: If the code is going to take another two years to develop, and we are talking about a building programme up to 2026, is it going to be the same code from 2007-26? Will it be revised more frequently than the Building Regs?

  Lord Rooker: Put it this way: I would imagine it would not be the same code. I certainly hope it would not be the same code in 2026 as published in 2006, because the scope for change would be enormous over that period of time. In the mean time, of course, I suspect we might have had changes from the code that we see as practical that we can get in the Building Regs, so that we bring everybody on board. It is a question of bringing everybody on board. We do not want people undercutting. It is a bit like the Minimum Wage in a way; the argument is people will always want to cut at the margin. The code has to be flexible. We can change it more frequently than the Building Regs to suit circumstances, but change by consent and consensus. On the other hand, I freely admit people like the Building Research Establishment and the scientists who are at the practical sharp end ought to be pushing government. I want them to do that. I want them to push us, because for us to get change as ministers, we need to know that we are being pushed by people who are practical and very experienced, because there are stumbling blocks. Sometimes they are a bit close to home, sometimes a bit farther away. It is good to have pressure on governments. I would welcome that pressure from those who are at the sharp end, and I emphasize the technical, practical end rather than people with the blue sky research, because we are dealing with people's homes and the places they work in, so we need to know we will get it right.

  Q828  Mrs Clark: If I can just backtrack before going forward, so to speak, you mentioned the BedZED development. I think it is only fair to say that we as a Committee did visit it and when you read our report when it comes out, you will see that there were quite a lot of things about BedZED that we were not happy with. We will leave that till the report comes out. Obviously, you are hoping to build millions and millions of homes over the next 15-20 years, but how many roughly would you expect will be built to the new Sustainable Buildings Code standard?

  Lord Rooker: I do not want to be nit-picking about this, but the idea of building millions and millions of homes over the next few years is not the case, strictly speaking. Our capacity for building in this country is greater than what we are doing and we want a step change. If we got to Kate Barker's figures, I do not think it would be classed as millions and millions.

  Q829  Mrs Clark: A considerable number.

  Lord Rooker: It is a considerable number. We have a huge housing shortage in this country and, as I have said, every house in this country has to last 1,200 years at the present rate of demographic change and replacement and building of properties. Just to say that shows how stupid it is because clearly they will not last, so we do have to have a home building programme much greater than we have now. They are all going to vary. I do not know in terms of the eco-standards how many. You are asking me to put a figure on it.

  Q830  Mrs Clark: Just a rough estimate.

  Lord Rooker: I cannot. Once we have the code written, and look at the relationship between the code and eco-homes, we want to maximise what we can do with new building, using new techniques, using modern methods of manufacture. I think the evidence is a lot more eco-friendly homes through modern methods of manufacture than we get due to traditional methods, and yet it has only produced something like 2-3% of home buildings. Even if we double or triple modern methods, we are still only going to scratch the surface, so we want to give a big push to modern methods because we know we will have better produced properties that are much more environmentally friendly, both in the materials they use and of course in the output in terms of gases and being energy-efficient. We know that will happen.

  Q831  Mrs Clark: But still just a voluntary basis when it comes to the private sector housing. Is it going to work?

  Lord Rooker: I do not have any evidence for this. It is a gut feeling in a way, listening to manufacturers and going on to sites. It reminds me sometimes of what used to be said in the motor industry. Every time there was pressure for lead-free fuel or anything else, they said, "We can't do this! It will add ten quid to the cost of a car. People won't buy our car." House builders are a bit like that at the moment. They seem to say, "We couldn't put another £200 package in this house because we could not sell it." It just sounds barmy. If they can make contact between the purchase or the rent of the property—mixed tenures will be both—and the output in terms of your fuel bills, for example, a direct connection, and market it that way, then we could see big progress, but we basically have a private sector market arrangement which in some ways we need to try and manage through land and planning etc. I could not give you a figure on it.

  Q832  Mr Francois: To summarise where we are, you are going to have a group of people who are going to come up with this code. At the moment, you are not quite sure who it is, or when they are going to meet, you obviously do not know what the code is going to be, but even when we do have a code, all the builders can ignore it anyway if they want to. That is where we sit.

  Lord Rooker: You can describe it like that. I would not. If you do describe it like that, do not expect me to sit back and take it quietly, because that is not a very professional attitude to take. I as a minister do not want to know when they are meeting. Why on earth should I want to know when they are meeting? When you have asked a group of professional people, mature adults, to do a job voluntarily—they do not get paid for these kinds of things—and they agree to do it, and you set terms of reference with a rough timescale—why on earth should I be expected to know when they want to meet? I might want to go to the first meeting to say, "By the way, hello, thanks very much for what you are doing," or wait until the end, which is what I have sometimes done when we have had people do jobs like that for us. But why would I want to know when they meet?

  Q833  Mr Francois: Minister, the fact remains nevertheless that you were not able to give us even an indication of what proportion of houses you expect to be constructed under the code, which I think you should have been able to give us an answer on.

  Lord Rooker: I do not think I should at this present time. It is too early.

  Q834  Mr Francois: Forgive me, but this whole thing is extremely vague. Even now you have confirmed that it will not necessarily be mandatory.

  Lord Rooker: No. I said initially it was voluntary.

  Q835  Mrs Clark: Getting on to eco-home standards, according to BRE there have been over 9,000 homes actually certified to eco-home standards since 2000. They do have another 10,000 registered that will be aiming for this status in the near future. The Housing Corporation funds the building of around 13,000 homes a year to this standard. English Partnerships also uses the standard in its developments, and it sounds quite impressive, but when you consider 140,000 houses were started in 2003 and Barker has said that we need up to another 120,000 a year on top of this, the impact of this is not very impressive, is it?

  Lord Rooker: Yes, it is correct that it is even worse than we said it was. We are only dealing in new homes, are we not? What are we doing about the existing 20 or so million? We are scratching at the surface. I absolutely agree with you. We are scratching at the surface when one looks at the grand scale of dwellings in this country. In the long term, relying on the code to get change and, as I said, from time to time we will have things in the code that we can put into the Building Regs so we can make it compulsory, so things will move from voluntary to compulsory, we are still only then dealing with new dwellings or refurbished dwellings. On the older ones we can do some work—not all of it, it is true—but over a period of time the figure will increase, not decrease, but it starts from a very low base. We are miles behind where we should be. I freely admit that. I am not saying there is a Holy Grail but we want to go in the right direction. The speed at which we travel at the moment, I freely admit, is slow.

  Q836  Joan Walley: What you have just said has raised a question in my mind. We are a nation of do-it-yourselfers, people who do repairs to their own homes. You mentioned the other 21 million or so properties that are not included in terms of just scratching the surface. Is that not an issue that somehow or other needs to be addressed as well in terms of the quality of the repair and renovation that goes on in that respect?

  Lord Rooker: It is, with respect, because there are some things that you could go into the big building supermarkets and buy today that you could not get some years ago, and secondly, in some respects some of the products, whether they be boilers or glazing fittings, you cannot get the cheaper ones because the Building regs have come in. So in some ways we are catching up through the do-it-yourself but the do-it-yourself person will not know that because these are the products that are available. We have changed the products that are available for do-it-yourself through the Building Regs, so in a way, we are doing things through refurbishment. I am not saying we are not tackling this. It is not part of the national plan. People are not interested. They want a product to replace a window, a glazing fitting or a boiler or new pipes or something like that, and they will probably not realise that they are slightly different to what they would have been like ten years ago. You cannot get the old ones that were available then because they were not so efficient as today's. So there is progress being made in that direction, but I freely admit it is slow. There is no point in saying otherwise.

  Q837  Mrs Clark: As well as being a bit of a Euro sceptic, I am a bit of a house building industry sceptic. Do you think they have any interest whatsoever in meeting environmental standards? Is there any progress there at all?

  Lord Rooker: Yes. House builders do vary enormously. I am not sure what the output of the biggest one in the country is. It is probably not more than 11,000-12,000. There is a huge number just building 200 dwellings, and they think that is really great—and it probably is for a small builder; it is quite an output if you do 200 this year, the year after and the year after that, but it is a scratch on the surface. All I can say is I have been on developments where the master planners and the developers, who do not necessarily do the building but have builders on their sites—and you have one in your own constituency or very close to it. I cannot say it is a model because I was only there on the one occasion. I was very taken with it. It predates the communities plan by years—inter-generational developers who are very proud of what they do in terms of sustainability of the whole community and the quality of the energy efficiency of their homes. I was on a site in Cambridge the other week, a brownfield site—there was a former Government Office on it actually, so we do go around knocking them down from time to time—where there was a mixed development going on of very good, spacious dwellings, with a real mix of prices, an incredible price range, and mixed tenures as well, with a very high level of standards as to the energy efficiency, noise efficiency and the use of the garden space as well.

  Q838  Mrs Clark: You have mentioned demonstration projects. How useful are these really going to be in encouraging better practice? Are people going to look at them and think, "Great! That's what I want to do" or will they just say, "Oh, very nice for them but I'll not bother"?

  Lord Rooker: In going round the various areas, the Pathfinders and the Growth Areas, I see quite a few—some I like, some I do not, but that is subjective; I am not a trained architect. You pick up tips, and I know that people involved in this overall project—and it is a huge project in terms of doing the communities plan—do actually travel round the country. They do not just wait for commercial fairs but they go and have a look at developments, and we encourage this as we are setting up the delivery vehicles—as I said, we are only halfway through at the moment—and there is encouragement there for delivery vehicles to actually talk to each other, because these are the decisions that are best made on the ground, not in Whitehall. There is an enormous wealth of examples in developments up and down the country where people can learn. There is not one size fits all though. You cannot say "This is what is wanted here" but people can learn from good practice all over the country. That is what we try and encourage. One of the remits of the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment—because we have upped its finances from ODPM enormously, from half a million a year to 17 million over a three-year period to actually do this very job—is to run the rule over both the Pathfinders and the Growth Areas in terms of quality. I do not mean quality by pretty and colours and measurements, but looking at the overall quality and sustainability of the buildings and the developments. That is very important work they are just starting to engage on.

  Q839  Mrs Clark: We have talked about John Egan quite a bit today, and of course, he has submitted to us. He has pointed out to us that as long as house buyers are actually non-repeat customers, there is absolutely no incentive whatsoever for the building industry to actually improve their product. He has also argued to us that the eco-home standards should actually be used as a minimum legal requirement for house builders. Kate Barker obviously came to see us as well, and in her evidence she said that materials, energy and waste should actually be taxed to ensure the right incentives exist. Would you agree with that? Do you use fiscal powers?

  Lord Rooker: I cannot go down the road of talking about tax. It is just impossible.

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