Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 860 - 866)



  Q860  Joan Walley: I do not have that assumption. I think Sir John Egan did when came here.

  Lord Rooker: My answer to your question is not as stupid as it sounds. You have only got to look at what has happened in some of the great northern cities which are undergoing a renaissance now, the Newcastles and the Leeds and the Manchesters, to see that there are people there with skills, imagination, innovation and drive, to actually manage these big renaissance projects that are transforming these cities and, what is more, the region that surrounds the city, because that is the way they are looking at it these days. I am not saying there is not a shortage of people, but what I am talking about is the concentration to start with, because the figures are bigger. I understand the concentration. When you start talking about half a million in what is a relatively small area of the country, this is big news. I understand that, and therefore there is a concentration on that, that hides the fact that in the rest of the country there is an enormous amount of work going on. The way that the three regions have taken up the challenge that John Prescott gave them for the Northern Way, to find a way of being able to use—because there is huge infrastructure up in that part of the world that actually could be exploited in the sense that it is not at the present time, and the way they have picked that up. We need to learn the techniques, because some things are going to be done in the Growth Areas, because the nature of the beast is different, which we can apply elsewhere. The same in the Pathfinders. They were called Pathfinders for that reason, those nine areas of the country designated. We want to apply the techniques of the Pathfinders maybe to some parts of the South West, where there are not any Pathfinders. But the management techniques and the planning techniques of that we  can apply elsewhere. That is part of the Communities Plan, to share what is happening through the construction of delivery vehicles and not leave everything just to the market or to the whim of local authorities. If you do not drive it and manage it, you will end up with unsustainable sprawl. That is the lesson of the past.

  Q861  Joan Walley: Can I say that I hope very much that we will have an opportunity to lead the way, certainly in the Pathfinder in West Staffordshire, because that is important. Just turning to the issue of construction skills, when the Committee went to Aberdeen, what we found there was that there were a lot of new houses and new homes that had been built, but because of poor construction skills on the actual workplace, many of the houses had not really been built up to the standards that were required because of poor workmanship. How can you be convinced that in the local areas local employers will be able to get the procurements and the contracts and that they will have the capacity to take on the apprentices and provide the training that is needed linked to the education agenda? Without that, we will not get the 76,000 new entrants that are needed because of the number of people retiring at the older end of the scale.

  Lord Rooker: Why did you go to Aberdeen? It is not my job to ask you questions really, but I know nothing about Aberdeen.

  Q862  Joan Walley: We actually went to Aberdeen because we wanted to have a look at the way in which the oil foundation of the city was re-adapting itself to the new economic and environmental issues, and in the course of that we saw best practice in terms of energy efficiency.

  Lord Rooker: All I can say is I have nothing to draw on in the sense of answering the question, with respect. I am not in any way attacking Aberdeen, but the fact is, all I can say is that it has dawned on even the concerned populace quite slowly about the effect of designating those four Growth Areas, for example, and indeed the Pathfinders in some ways, but because of the sheer scale of the thing, the Growth Areas. I did a seminar the other week for the Countryside Agency in Letchworth Garden City, where they wanted to talk about growing in terms of growing properly, being near the Growth Areas. It was packed out with developers and others who were keen to know. People are waking up to the fact of the potential, because this is not a quick fix for two or three years. They cannot do that unless they have the bodies, and the chances are, a bit like some of the traditional building companies, the wet trade companies, are actually investing in static factories—which of course is a big investment for a building company that is used to getting rid of its labour; in the wet trade, you turn up on a site, you pick up your factory, and you move to another site. Once you have a factory, and you have to look after an asset to generate a return, you need to look at things with a bit more forward planning. So they are doing that as a result of us having the Communities Plan. It is not a master plan in terms of the totality of the detail, but they know there is a plan to be driven forward. Therefore, the private sector so far has shown itself willing to invest in those areas, and it is investing in new skills, new assets, new materials, new factories, and they have got to invest in people as well. It will not be even across the country. There is not one size fits all, as I say, but it is going in the right direction when we discuss with developers and builders who want to come in and talk to us, to explain to us what they are doing. I have someone knocking on the door now who has a first-class record, only builds on brownfield sites, wants to explain some of their future plans without pre-judging anything. You have got to be careful who you listen to. So there is an awful lot going on out there at the moment which is all sending the right signals.

  Q863  Joan Walley: I hope very much that, if nothing else, this inquiry that this Committee is doing will pass very strongly the message out to those people you have just referred to. One of the things in the report that Sir John Egan did was to propose 50 indicators for sustainable communities. The Government's response to that does not seem to be 100% in favour of that. Would you just like to comment on that?

  Lord Rooker: Not really. I apologise. That is flippant. I think they were directed to local authorities, these 50?

  Q864  Joan Walley: Do we not need some kind of uniformity? How else can we measure?

  Lord Rooker: We do.

  Q865  Joan Walley: So what do we do if we do not take his 50 indicators on board?

  Lord Rooker: I am not going to tie myself to a particular number, but we do need to be able to judge performance. It is not so much us judging performance but it is those who are the doers. We are not the doers in ODPM, by the way; we are not a delivery department in the normal sense of the word. The actual deliverers will want to judge their performance, but in having the targets, it enables them to set up their management structures for what they are going to try and achieve, so that they have a target to work to. It is not just saying, "We will have a programme and build what we can, or we will refurbish what we can," but to have a target and know why they have the target as well, and know how missing the target affects one of the others. I think that is important.

  Q866  Joan Walley: Should that not be linked to Treasury targets in some ways, to performance indicators?

  Lord Rooker: I do not know. Probably not, but I do not know enough about the detail. The fact is that I think in every walk of life, when you are doing things, if you are going to manage and be professional about it, and you have an outcome that you want to achieve, you need to set some targets. You may hit them, you may not. It is not necessarily that if you hit them, they are soft. It is just that you have adjusted your management procedures and your assets and your resources to achieve those targets that you thought were worthwhile when they were set. I do not see any problem in setting the targets, but I am not going to tie myself to 50 or 40 or 60. I see nothing wrong in that. I know there is an argument the Government is suffering from "targetitis" from Whitehall. Compared to 1997, when I do not think there were any targets, you could make that charge, but on the other hand, we are trying to modify and wrap those practices into one and also have cross-departmental targets. We share targets with the DTI and the Treasury, particularly on regional growth and disparities in the regions.

  Chairman: We have missed our target of ending at 5 o'clock, but, Lord Rooker, thank you.

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