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Environmentally Sustainable Housing Developments

12.30 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Cummings, for allowing me to introduce this extremely important, albeit short, debate. As hon. Members from throughout the country but particularly from southern England will be aware, the Government propose to build many hundreds of thousands of extra new homes in the coming years. There is a strong need for some additional development. The Somerset County Gazette, a newspaper widely read in my constituency, had as its front-page splash last Thursday a feature on house prices in Taunton. It makes quite staggering reading. In 1995, the average house in Taunton cost £59,784; by 2005, a decade later, the price of the average house in Taunton had risen to £191,811—an increase of 320 per cent.

The ratio of average earnings to average house prices has made things very difficult for people in my constituency. Indeed, that scenario will be familiar to most, if not all, hon. Members. It is difficult for my constituents to afford to buy a property, so I am in no doubt about the need for extra development. People come to my surgery and say that they cannot find suitable social housing. People also say that they aspire to being first-time house buyers, but that not enough stock is available.

My concern, though, and the subject of this debate is not the numbers of new houses, which we have debated many times in the House, but the quality of those houses and how we go about providing for new communities in the future. I shall touch on three aspects of that issue. The first is best illustrated by an example. There is a community, a collection of houses, about four or five miles from Taunton, although it is still in my constituency. The community is in an area called Cotford St. Luke. Previously, Cotford St. Luke had only a handful of houses, but the local authority decided that it would provide additional accommodation by dramatically expanding Cotford St. Luke and allowing developers to build hundreds of new houses. I think that there are now about 1,000 houses in Cotford St. Luke.

The expansion started about six or seven years ago, but it was not until three years after it had begun that a primary school was opened in the village. By that stage, several hundred houses had been built. Many of them were lived in by first-time buyers who were attracted to the area and had children of primary school age, yet their children were going to schools in nearby villages such as Bishop's Lydeard and Oake and they were not forming a new community, even though they had moved to the village presumably with the intention of getting to know people in that area.

It was not until about a month ago that Cotford St. Luke, after many years of effort, finally had a shop. The population of Cotford St. Luke had reached about 2,000, yet it was impossible to buy a pint of milk, a pint of beer or anything else there. The only gathering point was the primary school, which, as I mentioned, opened only three years or so after the development began in earnest. Now, Cotford St. Luke has a shop, which is a
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breakthrough, but it still does not have a doctor's surgery, a church—at least, none has been built—or many other amenities that people would enjoy, including a pub, which is much sought after by many of the residents.

I say all that because there is a difficulty in building large estates, whether they are in areas such as Cotford St. Luke or part of existing towns, without such amenities and without many public transport routes, which is often the case. As a result, the people who live in such estates are unlikely to know and bond with their neighbours and are forced in nearly all circumstances to use a car, whether to buy a pint of milk or a pint of beer. Here we are as a Parliament and a group of politicians trying to lead a national debate about the importance of climate change and avoiding unnecessary car usage, while throughout the country new estates are being built where it is almost impossible for the inhabitants to manage in even the most basic way without a car. We and the Government need to deal with that.

The second issue that I want to turn my mind to—all the issues are related—is urban spaces and parks. Again, it is well illustrated by an example. There is an area in Taunton called Holway, and at the centre of Holway is Holway green. The council proposes, as part of its quota of houses, a new development on Holway green and that approximately two thirds of the green be concreted over and turned into new houses. The people who live in the area feel extremely strongly about that. The problem is that it deprives them of one of the few areas in their community where they can walk their dog and where their children can play football—often, they can do so within view of their house, so the parents feel that the children are safe.

I read in the newspapers that the Government estimate that about one third of children are overweight—many of them are obese—and that that is creating, in the words of one senior health professional, "a timebomb" for future generations in terms of ill health. At the same time, however, another wing of the Government is permitting green spaces in urban environments to be built on, presumably with the likelihood of a consequent reduction in physical activity by children and others in the area. I therefore support the Holway residents in their desire to see that part of Taunton retained with a green space in it. I understand why that issue is of concern to people throughout the country where councils are being urged to meet the targets on house building and are looking at places that they previously would not have considered appropriate, including parks and other green spaces in urban environments. There is a big difference between those and the brown spaces, the brownfield sites, that people often hear cited.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): I applaud the hon. Gentleman's stress on the importance of saving green space in urban environments. Is it the policy of his party and of those on its Front Bench to support the ten-minute Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) in his attempt to ensure that garden space is not continually designated as brownfield land?

Mr. Browne : I am grateful for that intervention. I cannot speak for my party on this issue; I can speak only
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for myself and say that I have followed the campaign of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) closely and I understand the point that he is making. I personally would not wish to see building on gardens ruled out in all circumstances, and I suspect that quite a lot of people who own big gardens would not wish that to be ruled out in all circumstances either. However, I do not believe that the presumption should be towards building on garden spaces that are currently enjoyed by people in a different way from brownfield sites.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) mentioned the ten-minute Bill regarding garden space. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) has supported my ten-minute Bill, which relates to the planning law in respect of gardens being designated as brownfield sites instead of green space. Additionally, with regard to his earlier point about the sale of parkland, local authorities should not be in a position to sell off valuable parkland—

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be short.

Lorely Burt : I beg your pardon, Mr. Cummings. I have probably made my point.

Mr. Browne : I do not wish to sound unduly partisan on this issue. Both interventions illustrate a concern, which other hon. Members have, about preserving the natural environment and the quality of life both in our rural communities and in our towns. We accept that additional housing development is needed, but it needs to take place with the utmost sensitivity, because we are talking about a transformation being made in the communities that we represent and sometimes it appears that sufficient thought has not been given to that process.

I shall quote in my support, perhaps unusually, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). I had not intended to do so, but the opportunity has presented itself. He said in his current campaign for the local elections:

I agree with that. My only difficulty is that it is a Conservative council in the area that I represent that wants to build on Holway green. There are difficult challenges for all of us in trying to reconcile laudable objectives with the reality on the ground.

My final point concerns the design of houses, and I can divide it into three areas as well. First, houses are built very densely. I understand why that was done, and if I were to tell a group of people, "We can halve the density, but we will take up twice the number of green fields", I suspect that they would be a great deal less enthusiastic about having less densely packed houses than they might have been. None the less, I am concerned that density appears excessive sometimes. We may be storing up social problems when we build housing estates where people literally cannot see a tree or a blade of grass because the houses built in such a tightly packed area are so oppressive and bear down on them to such an extent.
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The second area concerns distinctive local materials. I would like people who are walking around a new housing development in Taunton to know that they are in Somerset because of the type of brick used and the style of architecture. The experience would be different from being in Warwickshire, Norfolk or any other part of the country.

Michael Gove : Once again, I am compelled to applaud the hon. Gentleman's sentiments. However, given that it is Liberal Democrat policy to put VAT on the construction of all new homes, would the additional cost mean that many new house builders, including volume house builders, would not have the space in their margins to buy and use the local materials that we would both like to see form part of new housing design and construction?

Mr. Browne : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I fear that many developers will look to use their margins for profit, rather than to be sympathetic to the use of local building materials. There is also a wider point about whether we transport bricks hundreds of miles or use materials that are provided locally.

The third area, which may be the biggest challenge on a global scale, is this. In southern England, we are about to build hundreds of thousands of new houses. When people look back a century from now and consider whether we rose to the challenge in this coming decade, they may deem that we were not as successful as we would have liked. I am talking about features such as solar panelling, wind turbines on top of houses and improved home insulation. Many of those features are very difficult to fit to existing houses and are extremely expensive. The financial return comes over many years, if not decades. However, new houses present a new opportunity to improve environmental standards and the amount of energy that houses consume.

When we are judged by people at the turn of the next century, I hope that they look back and say, "Gosh, 95 years ago there was a boom in house building and a lot of towns changed markedly, but didn't the people at that time really use their initiative, flair and architectural imagination? They incorporated the latest techniques that really made a difference to the planet, carbon emissions and global warming. And didn't they do so in a way that was sympathetic to their environment? Far from detracting from the local architecture and character of places such as Somerset, they actually enhanced it. They were imaginative in how they allowed people to walk and how they allowed communities to form. They didn't just rely on people using their cars." I fear that when people look back at the turn of this century, they will not look as favourably on this period of development as we might wish.

Taunton has a population of about 60,000. The regional spatial strategy—a rather ugly phrase to describe housing development throughout the country—proposes a massive extension of the town, particularly concentrated in an area called Monkton Heathfield on the edge of Taunton, which would increase the size of the town by as much as 40 to 50 per cent. from its existing size during the lifetime of that programme. That will make a marked difference to our
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community and we must be mindful of the way in which we balance the legitimate need for extra social housing and of first time buyers to get on the housing ladder with the need to preserve the character of the town, which, after all, is what attracted people to stay there or move there in the first place. That is my challenge, in Taunton Deane, which I represent, in Exmoor and right across the country.

I finish with this observation, which the Minister may like to dwell on during his response. It is fairly straightforward to construct a collection of houses, but it is much harder to build a community. The Government, who are putting house building targets before Parliament, and local authorities throughout the country, need to be mindful of the need to build strong future communities as well as extra housing developments.

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick) : It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr. Cummings. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) on securing the debate on the important topic of environmentally sustainable housing. I pay tribute to his generosity in giving way to two other hon. Members to promote ten-minute Bills that were not his own, as well as providing them with some ammunition for local election literature during the next week or so.

I hope to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are committed to protecting and enhancing the environment, to improve the quality of life of people today and to provide a more sustainable legacy for future generations, which was at the forefront of his points. New developments bring environmental pressures. However, planned strategic growth rather than incremental development should bring fewer environmental impacts because it allows for environmental pressures to be planned for, accommodated and mitigated at a strategic land site level.

The Department is working hard to use land sustainably, minimise impacts and seize the opportunity to raise the environmental performance of what we build. Draft planning policy statement 3 re-emphasises that brownfield land is the priority for development. Authorities are required to prioritise the allocation of brownfield land when they update their five-year supply.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) referred to the ten-minute Bill of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has rebutted strongly the allegations that garden grabbing is going on. We do not take the accusations seriously. We are serious about brownfield development. I understand that the authors of the independent study do not accept some of the wildly inaccurate misrepresentation of their figures, although obviously these are serious matters and we do not underestimate their significance either.

Lorely Burt : I am somewhat shocked at what the Minister just said. If he were to visit my constituency of
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Solihull, he would see, in between the lovely old houses, groups of apartments that have been built because of the grab of people's back gardens.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I want to concentrate on the points raised by the hon. Member for Taunton, whose debate this is. The planning policy and designations relating to gardens have not changed since 1985 and planning authorities are locally accountable to their electorates. This matter is current and the ten-minute Bill will create more interest in it in due course.

Draft PPS3 retains the requirement that regions and local planning authorities should set brownfield targets in order to contribute to achieving the national target by 2008 of at least 60 per cent. of new housing development being built on brownfield land. In 1997, only 56 per cent. of new housing was built upon brownfield sites. In 2004, 72 per cent. of new building took place on brownfield sites. We are using land more efficiently, the national target has already been exceeded, and the challenge is to sustain that.

The efficient use of land is also achieved through density policy, a point raised by the hon. Gentleman. Draft PPS3 sets out a presumption that the minimum density of housing should be no less than 30 dwellings per hectare. It promotes a more flexible approach to density, setting out indicative ranges of densities by location. Between 1997 and 2004, national average housing densities rose from 25 to 40 dwellings per hectare. The Government have also been looking more closely at how infrastructure is funded to support our growth ambitions, ensuring that we can plan and deliver our infrastructure alongside new housing.

Consultation has recently closed on a proposed planning gain supplement, which would capture a modest portion of the increase in land value that occurs when full planning permission is granted. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has raised that issue in previous debates. A significant majority of planning gain supplement revenues would go back to the local authority area from which they were raised, to help local communities share the benefits of growth and manage its impacts. The remainder would be used to finance regional and strategic infrastructure to promote growth.

Michael Gove : Will the Minister enlighten us on what that significant proportion is? Will he tell us if and when the planning gain supplement comes in? What proportion will be spent on the local authority in which development takes place? What proportion will be spent regionally? And what proportion will the Chancellor retain to fund his black hole?

Jim Fitzpatrick : The hon. Gentleman knows that I am not in a position to answer that question today, given that the consultation has just finished. However, I am sure that he will receive that information in due course.

Under a planning gain supplement regime, section 106 agreements would be scaled back to cover affordable housing and issues directly related to the environment of the development site.

The Treasury is also leading on a cross-cutting review to ensure that Government resources are better focused on providing the necessary infrastructure to support
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future housing and population growth. The review will establish a framework for sustainable economic growth, and ensure that decisions about the specific locations of growth are taken in conjunction with decisions about the timely provision of the infrastructure needed to sustain them.

In addition, we recently announced that there will be a new planning policy statement on climate change. It will set out how everyone in the planning process should work towards the reduction of carbon emissions in the location and design of new developments—another important step towards achieving sustainable development.

In the Thames Gateway and the three growth areas that were announced as part of the sustainable communities plan in 2003, the ODPM is working closely with partners throughout the Government and the private and community sectors to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is available to support planned housing growth in those priority locations.

In the Thames Gateway, where an additional 120,000 dwellings are planned, significant funding has been committed, including £1.3 billion to provide transport infrastructure, £1.6 billion for skills, £1.3 billion for education and £400 million for health, to ensure that infrastructure is provided alongside housing growth. Although my constituency is urban, being London docklands, the infrastructure deficiencies of the London Docklands development corporation were very much a feature of the difficulties in east London. They are now being remedied with more investment in infrastructure, so I am familiar with those problems that the hon. Member for Taunton raised.

In our other growth areas, strategic growth plans are being developed to inform growth ambitions. For example, in Milton Keynes, the Milton Keynes Partnership is in the process of producing for the area a plan called MK 2031. It will act as a stepping stone for future statutory development plans at regional and local levels. It will include proposals for new schools, health centres, parks and open spaces, and identify future locations for housing, jobs and transport links. It will ensure that from the outset of the planning process, the needs of that expanding community are understood. That approach will strengthen the planning process and ensure that growth is sustainable over the longer term.

The Government's response to the Barker review of housing supply, which was released in December 2005, took further our commitment to protect and enhance the environment alongside increased housing growth. We announced a number of new environmental initiatives that aim to address environmental pressures and minimise environmental impact. They include a code for sustainable buildings, a commitment to regulate for water efficiency, new planning policies to help manage flood risk, mandating the use of site waste management plans, earmarking 10 per cent. of growth area funding for green space projects, and ensuring that future locations for growth are identified in partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency and, when established, Natural England.

We are also working hard to ensure that new locations for housing are not only sustainable, but improve the environmental performance of what we
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build. The new changes to part L of the building regulations, taken together with changes to strengthen the regulations in 2002, will improve energy efficiency standards by 40 per cent. The tough new standards came into effect on 6 April. They will deliver savings of 0.9 million tonnes of carbon a year by 2010, which is equivalent to the amount of carbon that would be emitted from almost 1 million dwellings built to previous building regulations.

We have also developed the draft code for sustainable homes in partnership with the building industry, so that when people make a purchase, they will be able to see how well their home will perform. It will become a major selling point: people will be able to see how energy efficient their home is, and compare the long-term costs of running their home in the same way in which consumers take into account energy efficiency of household appliances.

We are committed to regulating for water efficiency. This summer, we plan to consult on proposals to drive up water efficiency in new buildings, and existing buildings when fittings are replaced. We are regularly asked, "Why not make the code for sustainable homes mandatory?" We have already strengthened the building regulations to deliver significant efficiency savings. They are mandatory. We are also revising the code to set higher standards. The revised code will form the basis for the next wave of improvements to building regulations. That makes it clear that we are committed to this agenda and to raising standards. However, the code covers a range of issues, so it is complex to impose immediately. Our way of imposing it will give the industry time to catch up with the policy and plan ahead.

The Government are working with a variety of partners to achieve the vision for environmentally sustainable housing. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which promotes high quality architecture and urban design to raise the standards of the built environment across England, and the Academy for Sustainable Communities, a new national and international centre of excellence for the skills and knowledge needed to create and renew local communities, are key partners in raising the environmental performance of what we build. Through case studies, forums and engagement with industry, we are working together to demonstrate that environmentally sustainable housing is not just an abstract idea, but a reality that can, and more importantly, must be achieved.

Mr. Browne : I applaud those sentiments and many of the Government's initiatives. However, I fear that on the ground, they are not having the effect that the Minister claims. I still see new housing developments being built with few if any amenities to serve the people who live in them. I know that the Minister is busy, but if he is ever looking outside London for a case study of
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a typical sized town where he might see those policies applied—or not—in practice, he is always welcome to come to Taunton. I shall show him around some of the developments that I have described.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's invitation. He knows that as well as local government responsibilities, I have responsibilities for e-local government and for fire. A new regional fire control centre is being built in Taunton, and it is down on my calendar to go to see it. Perhaps we could combine the two visits when I manage to get that far west.

We are already seeing huge environmental improvements within residential developments, and in response to the point that the hon. Gentleman just made, we intend to do better still. English Partnerships, the national regeneration agency, has recently completed one of the biggest single public land acquisitions ever: the purchase of the disused Oakington barracks in south Cambridgeshire. The 288 hectare site will become the new town of Northstowe, creating about 10,000 new homes.

In developing the site, English Partnerships hopes to achieve up to 50 per cent. reductions on energy and mains water use, compared with conventional housing. It is considering such designs and technology as microgeneration through photovoltaic panels or tiles on roofs, and through windpower; solar water heating through roof mounted collectors, which can supply 50 per cent. of the energy needed for hot water; reduced energy use through better design features, such as putting the larger windows on south facing walls, using reflective green roofs and installing high performance insulation materials; water efficient fittings, such as taps and showerheads; rainwater collection and grey-water recycling for secondary uses, such as flushing toilets; and reduced waste water, through sustainable drainage techniques, which might include on-site treatment and the use of natural watercourses as part of the landscaping. All that is possible. It shows how far we have come.

I welcome this debate as an opportunity to discuss those matters, raise awareness of Government policy and seek views from colleagues about those policies. The hon. Member for Taunton raised the issue of green space projects. Developing growth areas is about not only additional housing, but the creation of sustainable and mixed communities. The strapline for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is "Building Sustainable Communities", as the hon. Gentleman knows. It means providing that green spaces improve the urban environment and create an important place that people can enjoy.

Green spaces provide important environmental functions such as absorbing and filtering airborne and waterborne pollutants, providing shelter and urban cooling, protecting biodiversity and mitigating flood risk. That is why we are earmarking 10 per cent. of our growth area funding for green space projects.
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