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House of Commons

Friday 25 January 2008

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Orders of the Day

Planning and Energy Bill

9.33 am

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for the wide support that the Bill has received, not only from my co-sponsors from all parts of the House, but from those councils at the forefront of good energy practice, the Local Government Association and our energy industry, which is ready and willing to help meet the challenge of climate change.

This is not a big Bill, but it does one important thing: it will enshrine in law, I hope, the so-called Merton rule, which I shall describe in more detail. Back in 2003, the London borough of Merton adopted in its local planning documents the policy that, for new developments, at least 10 per cent. of the new energy required must come from renewable or low-carbon sources on or near that development. The aim was to reduce the amount of energy that had to be brought in from miles away and to encourage microgeneration and more energy-efficient buildings, which would use less energy in the first place.

The Bill therefore gives Merton-style planning policies statutory protection. I should emphasise that it does not compel other councils to follow Merton, although around 100 are doing that. I should add—perhaps because the ghost of our late colleague Eric Forth seems to haunt this place on Fridays—that the Bill does not compel anybody to do anything. What it does is to put on the statute book the ability of a council to adopt a Merton-style policy, if it wants to do so. Without the Bill, councils will be left uncertain as to whether the policies that they adopt will remain legal.

Nothing illustrates that uncertainty better than the shifting position of central Government since Merton originally adopted its policy. I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box, but Ministers have blown hot and cold on Merton policies. First they encouraged Merton; then last summer we heard a new draft planning policy statement that seemed to back off. It looked as though borough-wide policies might be excluded or even that off-site energy might be included. Then last month, three weeks after I had sent a copy of the Bill to the then Minister, the latest text of the planning policy statement appeared, which said that borough-wide policies could be included and that off-site energy supplies would definitely be excluded.

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I welcome that improvement, but there has been too much to-ing and fro-ing, and we are still not clear about what central Government’s final position will be. We now have the guidance to follow that planning policy statement, and all the lobbying and counter-lobbying will begin all over again. The whole point of the Bill is to get away from all that and give councils the certainty that they need, so that they are no longer dependent upon a supportive Minister or at the mercy of the latest lobbying of No. 10. The Bill therefore sets out, very simply, that councils can—not must, but can—set a minimum requirement for local energy generation and energy efficiency standards that are higher than the minimum.

The big volume house builders would of course prefer a single set of rules for the whole country; but I want to be clear to the House that I would not be promoting the Bill if I thought that it would inhibit the future development of new affordable housing.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Will my hon. Friend take it from me, at the user end in the rapidly expanding town of Daventry, that I can recall no objections from home owners or purchasers to the use of enhanced planning powers? Nor have I encountered any representations from the developers who are developing the town about the difficulty of meeting the council’s requirement.

Mr. Fallon: That is very encouraging evidence indeed.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and, even more, for bringing forward the Bill, which I very much support. Its origins lie partly in the difficulties that Cambridge city council encountered in setting policies higher than the national standard. Does he agree that it is no objection to the Bill that it might lead to different standards? There is already a different standard between publicly supported house building and the private sector, because on the social housing side, the Housing Corporation already requires higher standards. One could therefore argue that the Bill will allow the same standard to be set for all sorts of housing.

Mr. Fallon: I am sure that that is true. The hon. Gentleman makes a helpful point. I am well aware of Cambridge city council’s position on this. Of course, a borough-wide policy sets a more even standard than the setting of individual requirements for individual developments within a borough or city.

I would not be promoting this Bill if I thought that it would inhibit housing generally. I have made inquiries of Merton borough council, and it has assured me that no developer has ever had any difficulty in coping with its requirements. Let us look at the facts. Merton’s policy is four years old, and its housing target—set by the Greater London authority—states that it must build 430 new homes each year. Since the policy was adopted in 2003, the actual annual totals of new homes constructed in Merton have been 484, 497, 546 and 528. So there is no evidence there that the policy inhibits the growth of new housing.

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Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I rise to support my hon. Friend’s point, having been a councillor in Merton before being elected to this place. I support the forward thinking of the council in introducing that measure, which was unusual for the time. I should like to confirm that there have been no problems with the planning procedure or with the building of new houses there.

Mr. Fallon: The House has just heard the voice of Merton, and my hon. Friend fully supports the position that I have just set out.

Let us also remember that the percentage for new housing set by Merton is not 90 per cent. or 80 per cent. or even 75 per cent. It is only 10 per cent. So this measure cannot be something that will over-excite the volume house builders. Indeed, some other house builders have told me that they can achieve a premium for houses built under these policies, and that they have no difficulty in doing so.

Let me turn to some of the specific issues raised in the Bill. I want to emphasise that I am very happy to meet any concerns about the drafting of any part of clause 1 in Committee, if the House allows the Bill to proceed today. In respect of the definition of part of the proposed development, of course I want it to include near-site as well as on-site, provided that that is connected to the development. I also want to assure developers that this must involve a dedicated supply. They would not necessarily be required to supply energy over a much wider area.

The provision in clause 1(c) will incentivise councils to reach beyond the minimum building standards, and of course I should like to see that aligned with Government policy on the code for renewable energy. I also want to point out that, as set out at the beginning of clause 1, the whole of my Bill is subject to the test of reasonableness. Developers and house builders will not—cannot—be required to do anything that is unreasonable. In any event, they will be fully consulted in the drawing up of the local development plans to which my Bill refers.

In the final analysis, Ministers will still have control. It is for Ministers to approve local development plans, and when individual planning applications are taken to appeal the Secretary of State sends her inspectors in to rule on them. I am therefore disappointed that I have not yet heard that Ministers are fully supportive of the Bill, especially as it is they who want all new homes to be zero-carbon by 2016. That is only eight years away, after all. I want local councils to help us to meet that challenge. I fear, however, that Ministers still think that can be done by central prescription.

This is not a big Bill, but it involves a clear difference of approach. Ministers seem to want circulars, statements and guidance; they seem to want revision after revision and draft after draft.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill, which, as he knows, has support on both sides of the House. He has just referred to the attitude of Ministers, and it is mysterious that there seems to be a lack of clarity in that regard. Presumably, he has had discussions with Ministers about the Government’s
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approach to the Bill. Has he been encouraged or discouraged by those discussions?

Mr. Fallon: I do not want to refer too much to private meetings, but yes, the House should know that I have had discussions with Ministers. As soon as I had finalised the draft of my Bill, I thought it right and courteous to send a copy to the Minister concerned, and I did so in November. There was a subsequent meeting. I claim no particular prescience, but one of the points that I made at that meeting was that Ministers come and go. Last night, that Minister went, which is a little unfortunate.

There is a point to that. Circulars are succeeded by other circulars, and guidance is succeeded by other guidance. A planning policy statement, even when finalised, will be succeeded in two or three years by another planning policy statement. My Bill backs a better route. It puts councils in the driving seat. It also encourages a measure of competition by emulation. More than 100 other councils have already followed Merton’s lead.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): My council has a problem that I am sure is common to many rural councils. Does my hon. Friend think that his Bill would be capable of amendment in Committee to address the anomaly whereby people living in areas of outstanding natural beauty who wish to put a solar panel on their roof have to pay £135 and apply for full planning permission? People who do not live in an AONB do not have to do that, as long as their roof does not face a road. Such details present a real disincentive. Does my hon. Friend believe that we could address that matter in Committee?

Mr. Fallon: Yes, I do. That is exactly the kind of issue that the Committee stage is designed for. We could certainly look at that kind of detail, and at some other issues, such as new building in agricultural and conservation areas, where some of these targets and requirements might be harder to meet. Those matters can certainly be taken up in Committee, and perhaps my hon. Friend would like to take part in that by agreeing to serve on the Committee if the Bill makes progress today.

As I have said, the Bill takes a different approach. The last Minister said that she backed local power schemes. The Bill backs local powers. If we are to meet the challenge of climate change, this cannot just be a matter for central Government. We need to have our local communities out in front, helping to meet that challenge. We are all in this together, and I urge the House to back localism and give the Bill a Second Reading.

9.47 am

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) on coming first in the ballot and, even more importantly, on choosing this issue as the subject for his Bill, which I wholeheartedly support. Perhaps that is no surprise, as it is remarkably similar to my private Member’s Bill of last year. It has a much snappier title, however, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that. When my Bill fell by the wayside, I sought to achieve exactly the
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same objectives through an amendment to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, although that attempt also sadly failed.

My objectives are exactly the same as those set out in the short Bill before us today. It is an enabling measure. As the hon. Gentleman said, it would not make anyone do anything. It would free local authorities to help to combat climate change using planning policy. It would allow councils to set higher standards for energy efficiency in their development plans than those laid down in building regulations, and allow them to make provision for sustainable energy and microgeneration requirements in the same document.

That approach has wide support across the House. An early-day motion supporting this kind of legislation was signed by more than 300 Members last year. It also has wide support outside the House, from local government, the sustainable energy partnerships, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Socialist Environment and Resources Association and, of course, from its primary supporters, the Association for the Conservation of Energy and the Micropower Council.

The Bill is about empowerment, but it is also about encouragement. Climate change is undoubtedly the greatest challenge facing the planet now—perhaps the greatest challenge that it has ever faced. We need every level of government, including local government, to play its part in meeting that challenge. Following the lead of councils such as Woking and Merton, this Bill points planning authorities in the right direction of setting high environmental standards for new developments, residential and non-residential alike.

This Government’s policy of making all new homes zero-carbon by 2016—and the Prime Minister’s proposal for new eco-communities—is excellent and we should all support it, but to turn the concept into reality, we need more examples of low and zero-carbon homes than the present small number of experimental buildings, including those about to be constructed. We need them very soon and local authorities can, if enabled to do so, make that happen in planning policy development. As the Government’s renewables advisory board said in November:

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I would like to record Plaid Cymru’s full support for the Bill and the principles enshrined within it. I would like to ask him about what may seem a technical constitutional point, but we are talking about decentralising power. Does he agree that it would be worth looking further in Committee into conferring framework powers on the National Assembly, which could be a better means of achieving the Bill’s objectives in Wales?

Mr. Caton: The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. He knows that, as a fellow Member representing a constituency in Wales, I am a committed devolutionist. I realise that the Bill talks about England and Wales,
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but the most appropriate way to move forward, especially given that the Minister with responsibility for planning is currently consulting on combating climate change, would be to provide for those framework powers in the Bill.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I am curious why the hon. Gentleman believes that the Government will not support the Bill. We have seen not a twitch from the Minister, yet at a time when the UK has been set a 17 per cent. target for renewable energy and we are achieving only 2 per cent. can the hon. Gentleman think of any reason why his party in government will not support this excellent Bill?

Mr. Caton: I think I know what the Government will say—that the ground is already covered in planning policy statements—but I shall come on to say that I do not accept that. When my Bill and amendments were up for discussion, I met Ministers and their civil servants many times, but I never really received a satisfactory answer to the question that the hon. Gentleman has just put to me.

Let me continue to quote what the renewables advisory board said:

Up until now, there has been great uncertainty in local government about whether it can or cannot set higher standards. The Bill’s supporters certainly advocate that it should.

Government planning inspectors responsible for overseeing the development plan process have sent out extremely mixed messages. For example, Reading was allowed to specify thermal performance requirements at least 12 per cent. higher than required in building regulations, but Cambridge was made to water down its planning policy, which required large developers to provide evidence of how they had minimised energy consumption and maximised energy efficiency and to consider the feasibility of using combined heat and power systems. To that, the planning inspector said that it was

The same line was taken by the Government office for the east of England when Bedford borough council wanted to reduce CO2 emissions by 10 per cent. more than in the building regulations in certain developments. We need clarity and active encouragement for ambitious standard setting.

We are now in a different position from last year because we have the planning policy statement on climate change published in December. That was welcome and certainly moves us in the right direction of travel. It says that councils will be expected to provide for onsite renewables and local community energy schemes to cut carbon emissions in new developments. In the Department for Communities and Local Government press release and, indeed, in letters to myself and other Members, it is claimed that
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the PPS builds on the Merton rule, which requires all new non-residential developments above a certain size to generate at least 10 per cent. of their energy on site from renewable sources. Then there is the Mayor of London’s plan to double the renewables share of UK electricity supply from the 2010 target of 10 per cent. to 20 per cent. by 2020. That all sounds very good and I suspect that the Minister will argue that there is consequently no need to enact the Bill.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that. The problem is that the policy statement is unlikely to match in achievement the rhetoric that has accompanied it. It contains too many caveats and hurdles to jump over, which will put off all but the most committed local authorities from going for higher standards in their development plans, and it provides loopholes for developers. In reading it, I gained the impression that minimising carbon emissions through planning policy comes a poor second to making development happen. When they set their targets, councils have to

In respect of housing development and when setting development area or site-specific expectations, councils need to

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