Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 840 - 859)



  Q840  Mrs Clark: We will invite a Treasury minister.

  Lord Rooker: Invite a Treasury minister, because there is a big financial implication here. There is no question about it. I am not seeking to hide from you.

  Q841  Chairman: We will indeed have an opportunity to do that.

  Lord Rooker: I take your point about what John Egan said. There is a problem here. A lot of people do move regularly, by the way, but it is the same people who move all the while. You cannot go by averages, in other words. Some people move every three years; others stay put for 30 years. So the average is very misleading. Put it this way. I am not painting the industry black; far from it. The questions might have done. There has been enormous progress in the last few years, by the way. Let us not say we are where we were ten years ago. I think we are much further advanced than ten years ago.

  Q842  Mrs Clark: Finally, is a voluntary code going to work? Do we not need some powers of law?

  Lord Rooker: I think it is always best to embark on things like this voluntarily at first. There is always the threat later on of the big stick. Once there is a consensus, saying "Yes, this is the way forward, this is the way we should be going forward," it is much easier then. If you come along and the first thing you do is reach for the "Big Brother", make it compulsory, it will not work. It is a bit like stakeholder pensions, if I might put it that way. You start them off as voluntary and if they do not work, you might have to make them compulsory. But I cannot possibly comment on things like that. I think the voluntary route is the best way to start, but I am not saying you keep it voluntary for ever.

  Q843  Mr Francois: Minister, my colleague Mr Challen, was making quite a point about Strategic Environmental Assessments earlier, and I would like to return to that in the context of the regional assemblies. The East of England Regional Assembly, EERA, published its Strategic Environmental Assessment of its own Regional Spatial Strategy this month and concluded as follows: "The rate and intensity of economic, housing and infrastructure growth envisaged for the region, especially its southern parts, is intrinsically damaging to many aspects of the environment and quality of life. Particularly serious problems include water resources, flood risks, quantity of movement to be accommodated, urbanisation and conflicts and competition for land . . ." It goes on but for the sake of brevity, I will leave it there. You had requested that EERA had an extra 18,000 homes above the ones they had already voted through, and they turned that down. The South East Regional Assembly is also said to be strongly opposed to the target of another 34,000 a year for its region. Now that these are going against you, do you have a plan B, or are you just going to force the assemblies to try and adopt your plans anyway?

  Lord Rooker: I know you are going to accuse me of copping out here, but I have no choice in a way. There is a legal process to go through from the regional assemblies, particularly on the South East one, which of course is some way behind. The way the Growth Areas are planned, they go across the regions, of course. One Growth Area, Milton Keynes/South Midlands, is about 18 months ahead of the Stansted-Peterborough-London corridor, and I mean that. The real reason is, some time towards the end of next year there will be an examination in public by independent inspectors of those plans. They are not government plans; they are the assemblies' plans, and obviously we as Government will put in evidence, as will everybody else. The one for Milton Keynes lasted five weeks earlier this year, and at the present time, the report has been published by the inspectors and we have commented on that report, for example. There is an eight-week consultation on our comments at the present time, so it will not be till next year. The process for the East of England is behind that, therefore anything I say now will be written down and used in evidence against me and the Government at the inquiry. I cannot pre-judge the inspectors. It is their view, their figures. I fully accept them, because I have listened to them. I have met the district councils in those county council areas and I fully take on board that there has been growth in the past without the infrastructure. At the southern end there is real pressure. The real southern end, of course, is the north part of the Gateway. I fully accept the point. In fact, I am reminded every day across the Despatch Box by Lord Hanningfield, the Leader of Essex County Council, that in the South they are doing their bit in the north part of the Gateway, but they do not want any more. I paraphrase him. I understand the pressures on the infrastructure in the past there, but I am not going to pre-judge it because their figures in their report will be put to an independent inquiry in which the Government has a view and the Government will put its view, that is true. There are councils in those areas who were really opposed to what was happening in the area to start with. I am not saying their attitude has changed but the mantra to them is exactly the same: no infrastructure, no growth, and I mean that.

  Q844  Mr Francois: To follow on from that, what about the possibility of rebalancing some of these plans and building some more of those houses in other parts of the country? When we were taking evidence a few weeks ago, those of us representing south-eastern constituencies were quite annoyed about the amount that was coming our way, particularly the way Sir John Egan described it. I think it is fair to say that colleagues from northern constituencies were quite alarmed by the fact that, in terms of population, they were likely to be denuded. There was almost a consensus around the table that both ends geographically of the Committee, if I can put it like that, were very concerned about the process. Would it not be better to try and rebalance this and redistribute some of the growth more evenly around the country, bearing in mind what you told us earlier, that this is meant to be a national concept?

  Lord Rooker: It is a national concept. I am not saying therefore it is all equal. The four Growth Areas of the wider South East, which goes as far as Wisbech and Corby, so you define the South East for these purpose, on one part of it. The Pathfinders, the Northern Way concept, on which work is being done at the present time, is another part of it, and that is part of that rebalancing. A practical example of the rebalancing is the fact that the Growth Areas are not statutory boundaries. We changed a Growth Area to include Huntingdon and Peterborough in that London-Stansted-Cambridge Growth Area six or seven months ago. The original Growth Area did not include the top part of what would be north Cambridgeshire, for example, so we rebalanced, in addition to which, by the way—and I certainly cannot discuss the locations—there are other parts of what we might call that wider South East that have said to us as Government "We would like to be part of a Growth Area." They are outside these four Growth Areas now. The whole idea is growth is going to happen everywhere. Our plan was to get half the growth in the Growth Areas so it was more manageable and more sustainable, rather than spread out higgledy-piggledy across the countryside, the villages and urban sprawl. But there are other areas in the wider South East that have said to us and we are in discussion and considering that very point now with them.

  Q845  Mr Francois: One very important point: time and again from almost all the witnesses we have taken evidence from it has been emphasized to us that it is very important to carry local people with you, otherwise the process is not going to work. Can I put it to you that if you cannot even convince the regional assemblies to take the numbers of houses that you want, how are you going to really persuade people at the local level, on the ground to go along with this?

  Lord Rooker: I do not want to bandy the figures about, but as far as the East of England Assembly is concerned, they have come up with an offer of 97% of what I asked for. Is that a failure? I am not going to war over 3%. I do not call 97% disagreeing with me. Think about it: 478,000, and there are 18,000 on the edge. It is minuscule. I do not consider that at   war. When I launched the Cambridgeshire partnership, Cambridgeshire Horizons, the other week, chaired by Sir David Trippier, a former Member of this House and Minister, there were councils queuing up to say "We want our share of the wider Cambridgeshire growth." They are queuing up, so I do not consider it to be a failure or a war when the Regional Assembly offers a figure that is 97% of what was a gross, top-line figure.

  Q846  Mr Francois: How many district councils in Essex asked that?

  Lord Rooker: I did not meet them. it just so happened that I launched the Cambridgeshire delivery vehicle offices, their new logo, Cambridgeshire Horizons. That was my recent meeting. It is only two weeks ago.

  Mr Francois: You mentioned Lord Hanningfield. Anyway, thank you.

  Q847  Mr Chaytor: Can I stay with Sir John Egan . . .

  Lord Rooker: It sounds to me as though you need John Egan back again.

  Q848  Mr Chaytor: He said some very interesting things indeed, and one of the things he said seemed to be absolutely at odds with the thrust of the Sustainable Communities Plan because his view was that, far from these being sustainable communities where people would live and work, either in the Thames Gateway or in the eastern region, the main thrust of the purpose of the house building programme was to accommodate 1 million people who were going to move into London before the end of the decade. These were his figures, so I stand to be corrected. If 1 million people move into Britain, half a million of which would settle in London, and this was because of the success of London as an international financial services centre and these would be highly skilled, internationally mobile people who would be looking for good quality accommodation with faster access into the centre of London, this seemed to be a complete contradiction to everything that people had assumed before about the concept of sustainable communities, be they in the North East or North West or certainly the South East, which would be communities—and this is clearly the criterion in the plan—where people would live and work and where democracy would be reborn because people therefore would be actively engaged in their community life. If people are commuting into the centre of the city at 6 o'clock in the morning and going back at 9 o'clock at night, they are not going to be terribly vibrant democracies.

  Lord Rooker: They certainly are not.

  Q849  Mr Chaytor: So what is your view of Sir John's Assumptions?

  Lord Rooker: I was not here. I think I have got the gist of what he said.

  Q850  Mr Chaytor: It is all in the transcript.

  Lord Rooker: I am not coming here to have a big battle with John Egan, but let us get it clear. I was in the Gateway this morning. There was a CLP visit, a central and local partnership visit to the Gateway this morning, with several ministers, local government colleagues, a presentation from Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, who is a key player in this as chair of the Local Government Association and of course Chair of one of the partnership arrangements, and he did make the point clear, and I think it was a very fair point, and it goes some way to answering your question. Unlike the other three Growth Areas, the thing about the Gateway is, it has to have the jobs put in as well as the dwellings. In the other Growth Areas we have a lot of pressure on jobs running out of people, in Milton Keynes and South Midlands, where the jobs are ahead of the dwellings in some ways. There is a lot of growth going on anyway, as I have already said, in the area. We are not building the Thames Gateway, as it were, to be a 40-mile linear dormitory commuter belt, period. That is not the plan and that is not going to happen. There will be—there has got to be—an enormous amount of jobs and investment in that area. The point is, the infrastructure that is being placed in there, such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the domestic services and the station at Ebbsfleet, to open up those incredible brownfield sites, those former quarries—two and a half miles long in one case, where I have seen the master planning is well ahead, shifting the 22 million tonnes has already started. This has got to be for jobs and housing. It is not a housing programme. Whatever you might have been told or given nuances about, the Gateway programme is a full communities programme, ie jobs, housing, green belt, sustainable communities, but it has to have good infrastructure into central London, unlike the west, and of course, it will have, built on with what is happening with Fast Track, which is the system they will have for these dedicated bus routes in the north Thameslink area between Gravesend, Dartford and that area, and of course, another river crossing is envisaged in future, beyond Lower Bean, beyond Dartford. So there are huge infrastructure implications here in the Gateway, which is why originally the Cabinet Sub-Committee was set up, because obviously the financial implications are enormous. But it will not be a 40-mile linear dormitory village. I cannot spell it out any more clearly than that.

  Q851  Mr Chaytor: You take that point. That is not what Sir John Egan was saying his understanding of the drivers behind . . .

  Lord Rooker: It is clearly not what he said. I fully accept what you say; it is not what he said. He did not say what I have said.

  Q852  Mr Chaytor: Maybe the Deputy Prime Minister and yourself need to have another word with him to clarify exactly what the purpose was.

  Lord Rooker: On the other hand, let us pay tribute. John did the review also of the sustainable communities skills, to have a look at the issue for us to see what we were missing and what we needed to delivery sustainable communities, and there will be an announcement about a Centre for Sustainable Community skills at the summit at the end of January based on John's work, so there will be a national centre for giving advice to people in this respect.

  Chairman: We are hoping to come on to this if we have time in a minute or two.

  Q853  Mr Chaytor: Could I just ask one other question on this and then move on to the skills issue? What is the balance therefore, do you think, between the number of new dwellings that will be for communities and the number of new dwellings that will be housing people who are working locally? This is quite critical and it is linked in with the question of the balance between the percentage of the new dwellings that will be affordable for people doing fairly ordinary mainstream jobs and the percentage of new dwellings that will be specifically providing for internationally mobile people working in financial services, zipping into London in the early hours of the morning and returning late at night.

  Lord Rooker: Off the top of my head, I cannot give you the figures, but the fact is, first of all, the developments have got to be mixed. The one I was at this morning along with colleagues was certainly talking about 30%.

  Q854  Mr Chaytor: That is 30% affordable?

  Lord Rooker: Yes, but I am coming to qualify that, because affordable means different things in different areas. The fact is, this development, which was designed some years ago but is under construction now, some 1,000 dwellings, river-front as well, was actually designed for mid-range prices. It is quite astonishing. Even today, the most expensive dwellings down there were only about £290,000, so this was mid-range. It was built in that way. You might say that is affordable for many people but the affordable context, the overall aspects of that site, will be 30%. On the other hand, I cannot give you the breakdown in terms of population. Most of the growth will come from indigenous population because of demographic changes in this country. There is no question about that. It is true there is a net in-flow, but the fact is that the vast majority of the change comes about because of our demographic changes, and there are enough figures to justify that. I think some 75% of new household formation will be single-person dwellings, for example. We have these issues to cope with. On the other hand, we want to build modern, sustainable communities, so we need the schools, we need the children, we need the mix of ages, and families, because you are in effect building large developments on brownfield sites in the Gateway—this is quite unique compared to the Growth Areas—and it is quite clear a lot of the jobs—and I would like to think there would be some factories making things, by the way, not just what I call little jobs—but a lot of them, simply because of the access from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link post 2009, or 2007 on the one hand but 2009 when the domestic services will operate—I think that is the figure—the materials have been ordered, and the rolling stock was ordered a couple of weeks ago. The time factor for getting from across the Channel is really tiny. It  is true, again, from Ebbsfleet it will only be 17 minutes to central London, so you have this issue of a major change in the transport infrastructure in the southern part of the Gateway, in the north Kent area.

  Q855  Mr Chaytor: Is that not one of the paradoxes, that the faster it is to get into central London because of the improved infrastructure, the less likely people are to stay and work in the Thames Gateway?

  Lord Rooker: It is a paradox in a way, but that is why you have got to manage it. As Sandy Bruce-Lockhart said this morning—and I think he gave a figure of something like 300,000 jobs—you have got to have the jobs there. It will not work if it is just people, because there is not the capacity inside London in that sense, because you do not want to   build commuter-land. You want to build communities where people live, work, play, bring their children up, schools, so there is not this dormitory town aspect of it, and that is what we will seek to achieve. But it has got to be jobs-led. The Gateway is, if you like, slightly different to the other Growth Areas because the jobs are actually flowing in ahead of the population in some ways. In the Gateway, they clearly are not.

  Q856  Paul Flynn: We were glad to hear the Government is going to respond in late 2005 to the Barker report. Is there any chance in the mean time that the Government can give an indication of those proposals, particularly the proposals that you reject, in order that the many people involved in the industry who are looking to try to plan for the future will have some preliminary idea of the Government's thinking?

  Lord Rooker: I think the short answer to that is no.

  Q857  Paul Flynn: When Kate Barker gave evidence to us, she seemed to be far more tentative in her ideas than the written text suggested, and she talked about the many practical difficulties that will come about. She talked about the market-based triggers for development, and I wonder whether this is something you are considering. Barker herself said that distinguishing between a long-term trend and cycles in house prices would not be an easy thing to do—quite right too. Obviously, we appreciate that this work has to be done, but would you consider that option, market-based triggers? Is that one that you are seriously considering?

  Lord Rooker: I really cannot go further into Barker because, honestly, I do not know because there is an enormous amount of consultation going on. A lot of people read a lot into Barker which clearly was not there, as implied, in a way, from what you have said about when she came to give evidence. We are dealing with what is an incredibly complex process, in a way. I am not criticising this, but her field was quite narrow and it took as its starting point the fulfilment of the Communities Plan operation, the extra 200,000 on top of what had already been agreed. Obviously, that has implications for many things, whether it is our building industry, land supply, learning to build at higher densities. We are creating brownfield land all the while. We keep a careful watch on the register which English Partnerships is putting together for us, and at the moment, with a very low level of production, we are meeting our brownfield target. It is quite complicated. I just cannot pre-judge what is going to happen. I think what we will do is pronounce on Barker as a package after the consultation. It is the end of next year. I am not being specific about a date, but in the timescale we are operating in, in terms of planning for land, planning policies, getting land put together and looking at perhaps restructuring the building industry and issues like that, it is a fairly small amount of time. I realise ministers are transient; they come and go, but in the big scale of things, this is a very small slot of time. I just ask for patience. By all means ask the Treasury about it; I always advise that, but it is something that is best to pronounce on as a package, to be honest, for the industry's purposes.

  Q858  Joan Walley: Perhaps we can just end on Egan, because a lot has been said about Egan throughout the whole of the afternoon. Many of us were heartened by what you said just now, that there is going to be an announcement at the summit in January on the Centre of Excellence. It think that will be critical in terms of taking forward the whole skills agenda. I know you have not read the transcript of when Sir John Egan came to our Committee, but he did suggest to us that the Government was going to succeed in getting 125,000 houses built each year. Given the state of the construction industry, there is going to have to be a huge step change in terms of actually delivering that and taking on board the ability of construction workers and the industry as a whole to gear up to that. He particularly cited management techniques and project management, not just individual plumbers and expertise. How is that step change going to come about? If Egan himself is perhaps having doubts as to how it is going to be achieved, do you think that the establishment of a Centre of Excellence is going to be sufficient? What more needs to be done, and what has the Government got in hand to achieve that?

  Lord Rooker: First of all, it is quite right what he said; he was not just looking at the number of brickies. He realised, once you start to look at this, looking at the number of brickies does not solve your problem. For example, even now, today, if a local authority gets a planning application for anything more than 500 dwellings on a site, they virtually freeze like a rabbit in headlights in the middle of the road. There is a real capacity problem, in other words, in dealing with large sites. This is something we know. We have talked to local authorities about it, and other experts, and we have had a panel working on this across Whitehall, which Keith Hill and I have looked at. It came up out of looking at what the barriers were to delivering the existing figures, for example, and one of them was an inability to get speedy decisions on large sites. I do not mean quick fixes, cutting corners, but there is a capacity problem there. It is the management skills, of project management, of putting this together and looking at the whole of the skills that John Egan looked at. We are working on this so that the Deputy Prime Minister can make an announcement at the end of January on a National Centre for Skills for Sustainable Communities, or whatever it will be called. I am sure there will be a new logo and a title, which we will waste a lot of money on probably. These issues are the nub, because if you cannot get good management, then it will not matter about dealing with the plumbers and the bricklayers and the wet trades—because there will still be wet trades, even if we get a big increase in modern methods of manufacture. Nevertheless, there are now far more traditional building companies, for example, actually investing in factories for modern methods, having learned some of the lessons, they have got to to manage processes out on sites. So it is actually trickling down, but it does need to be given a big push.

  Q859  Joan Walley: Just before we come on to the construction skills of individual workers, one of the concerns I have is that you could well find that that project management that you are seeking to improve could be improved in the larger areas and the Gateway areas, but given the recruitment that some areas, particularly the Pathfinder areas, have, how can you get a national spread of improved design management techniques right the way across the country, and how can you link that to the regeneration agenda in order that you can deliver the Pathfinder programme?

  Lord Rooker: Not everybody wants to live and work in the South East. This is a natural assumption of people.

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