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25 Jan 2008 : Column 1759

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. The extension to the time limits is necessary precisely because we need more evidence to ensure that those shoddy cowboy builders are prosecuted. Surely he welcomes that.

Gregory Barker: I am certainly not opposed to it in principle, although I am not familiar with the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I would be more comfortable about doing that if I really thought that a strong effort was going into prosecuting as things stand. I do not want us just to give more wriggle room. However, I hear what the Minister is saying.

Some councils may allow developers to account for some of their target through efficiency measures and others may set independent targets for microgeneration and efficiency. There are concerns that there may be a plethora of new efficiency standards as a result of the Planning and Energy Bill, but the current wave of Merton rules has produced no such complexity. It is clear that it is far more time-efficient for most local authorities to use existing codes, such as the Government’s sustainable homes code, than to develop completely new standards from scratch. The rule also gives a welcome chance to smaller, local property developers to serve their local market. Larger developers, who have a more unwieldy, mass-produced product to adapt, might not as easily tap into such a market. We could thus use the benefits of local knowledge and of involving small entrepreneurs.

If we are really serious about tackling climate change, every aspect of government must be prepared for dynamic change. We must also be prepared to challenge the status quo. This Government have proved that business as usual will simply not deliver the speed of transformation in our economy that we need. We must foster excellence in innovation and new technology, invest in and develop burgeoning green technologies, and we must look ahead and be far more ambitious in their deployment. Rather than pick individual technological winners centrally, or dictate from Whitehall planning guidance that is uncertain in the long term and unsuitably broad brush in its approach for the needs of localism, the Bill would allow and empower those communities who are most able—often those where land values are higher—and most willing to blaze a trail for others to follow.

The Bill would allow the right solutions to reach the endlessly varied parts of this country and give us at least a fighting chance of reaching our 2016 zero-carbon homes target. The Government claim from time to time to back Merton-style rules. Indeed, the former Minister for Housing—now Chief Secretary to the Treasury—has called the PPS solution Merton plus. If she had been truly convinced of the importance of market certainty to developing our microgen sector and of the power and effectiveness of Merton rules, she surely would have joined us by giving local authorities the statutory right to set them.

Before I conclude, I should like to cite the word of the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Jack Pringle. He has said:

In this time of Government dithering, business certainty is vital. This Bill has the potential to provide that in one area at least. It does exactly what it says on the tin. One would expect something crisp, sharp, pithy and non-regulatory from my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, who is a tireless and redoubtable member of the Treasury Committee and a hammer of needless regulation and burdensome government. The Bill has also proved him to be a champion of modern localism. He has not only captured the spirit of a new political age in the Bill, but he has endeavoured to give our local communities, which are far more ambitious and more progressive than this inert Government, the power to begin the job that we will finish.

11.19 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I begin by welcoming the spirit in which the debate has taken place today, and the intent, manner and sentiment behind the Bill, although that was spoilt somewhat by the partisan approach of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker).

I am glad that we have moved on. We have all come a long way in 20 years, not least the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). As a north-eastern MP, I remember him as a former Member for Darlington. There has always been a lot of animosity between Darlington and Hartlepool, largely as a result of football clubs, but I hope we do not see any of that animosity today. About 20 years ago, climate change was so low on the political radar that when Margaret Thatcher’s chief scientific adviser warned her about the threat of global warming she is said to have replied, “Are you seriously telling me that I should have to worry about the weather?” That is important; we have moved on because climate change is of profound concern to us all today. The weight of scientific evidence is irrefutable.

Mr. Hurd: Would the Minister acknowledge that Mrs. Thatcher was the first mainstream world leader to put climate change on the global agenda?

Mr. Wright: I would still maintain that throughout the 1980s, climate change was not one of the Thatcher Administration’s main concerns, and this Government have progressively ensured that it has moved further and further up the political agenda.

Before I move on, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), whose comments resonated a lot with what I think. I shall not say too much about energy efficiency, but her point about going round turning lights off resonates with me. I am a father of four children and I seem to spend my weekends doing exactly that. As the hon. Lady was speaking, I recalled the scene in the BBC comedy series “The Royle Family”, where they were sat on the sofa and Caroline Aherne’s character, I think, said, “Where were you, Dad, when Kennedy was shot?” and he said, “I’ve no idea, but I’m sure our immersion heater was on”—very similar to our household.

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We are moving towards a powerful international consensus that urgent action is needed to tackle climate change. The evidence suggests that human activity is a major cause of climate change, and that evidence is growing. This state of affairs does not just affect climate change and energy policy; it will have major global repercussions for things such as migration, economic development and economic policy. We need to tackle the problem in the round.

I would like to describe some of the actions being taken by the Government to address climate change, particularly through housing and planning legislation. The benefits in particular of the planning policy statement on climate change that was published in December are central to my argument Unfortunately, when that guidance was published, the results of the ballot had already come through for the hon. Member for Sevenoaks. He may correct me on this, but had he been aware of the PPS, he would have been aware that his Bill would be superseded by it, and he might have changed his mind regarding its content. The PPS renders the hon. Gentleman’s proposals unnecessary. It achieves the same ends, and there is a strong consensus throughout the House on the basis of those ends. The Government cannot support the Bill. Although we support the ends, we can achieve them through different means.

David Howarth: Given what the Minister has said, will he put on the record that the Government’s new policy position makes lawful and acceptable the rule that the local authority in Cambridge put forward and had rejected? That rule stated that developers have to provide evidence of how they have minimised energy consumption, maximised energy efficiency and considered the feasibility of combined heat and power. If he can put on the record that such a rule is okay, I shall go along with what he is saying. Otherwise, the Bill is necessary.

Mr. Wright: I am unfamiliar with the Cambridge example, and I do not want to box myself in. Having said that, the planning policy statement states that local authorities should have climate change and its mitigation at the heart of what they do in their local planning documents. In that respect, I imagine that Cambridge should be doing exactly that. I hope that answers his question.

I have been struck by some of the comments made in defence of the Bill, and I wrote some of them down, such as, “It makes nobody do anything”. I approach such matters on the principle that legislation should make somebody do something—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Opposition Members surely accept that there needs to be an absolute reason for legislation. That is the whole point of our being in this House—to make things a lot better. The concerns raised by Opposition Members surprise me, because we need to ensure that climate change is mitigated as effectively as possible, bearing in mind the fast-moving elements involved and the changes in technology. The planning policy statement helps to address that.

Although I have a problem with the fundamentals of the Bill, I agree with all the sentiments expressed today about the need to take radical action to tackle climate change. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle acknowledged most graciously, the Government
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are leading the world in taking the tough action needed through our Climate Change Bill. That is currently in the other place, and it sets out our plans to tackle climate change in the next 50 years. It demonstrates to the world that we are determined to take the tough decisions needed, and that we will not ask any country, especially the poorer ones, to take any steps that we are not prepared to take ourselves. That Bill is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, setting clear legally binding targets to reduce carbon dioxide levels by at least 60 per cent. by 2050, and by 26 to 32 per cent. by 2020, based on 1990 levels. It will provide a new system of legally binding five-year carbon budgets, set at least 15 years ahead, which will provide clarity on the optimum pathway towards the key targets. I suggest to the House that that will offer greater certainty and confidence, facilitating the business planning and investment necessary to work towards a low-carbon economy.

Angela Watkinson: I was contemplating what points the Minister could possibly dredge up as objections to allowing the Bill a Second Reading, and I hope that he is not moving towards such an objection. Is he saying that the provisions of the Climate Change Bill encompass what the Planning and Energy Bill provides? Earlier, he said that this Bill does not achieve anything. Does he not agree that enshrining the Merton rule in primary legislation is a positive thing for the Bill to achieve?

Mr. Wright: The main thrust of my argument is twofold. First, as I shall come to later, last year’s planning policy statement provides local authorities with what is required by the Bill, but gives us flexibility because we do not need primary legislation to deal with it. My second argument, which I shall advance in a moment, is that the range of legislation currently going through this House and the other place, such as the Climate Change Bill, the Energy Bill, the Planning Bill, most importantly, and the Housing and Regeneration Bill, provides other means by which we can achieve what is set out in this Bill. Because parliamentary time is extremely valuable, I would suggest that the Bill is not necessary. Our commitment to tackling climate change and ensuring that that can be done within the planning framework absolutely reflects what the hon. Member for Sevenoaks wants to achieve, but it achieves it by other means.

We need to ensure that every element of our economy and society can reinforce our ambitions to cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change throughout the fields of transport, buildings and industry. In my Department for Communities and Local Government, we are paying particular attention to what can be done to improve housing and planning in order to cut carbon emissions from buildings.

As I said to the hon. Member for Upminster, we also believe that the planning system has an important role to play in promoting the greater use of renewable energy. The Planning Bill has been introduced—it is in Committee at the moment—in order to promote a green and growing economy. The new planning rules set out stronger environmental requirements for local authorities, putting the tackling of climate change at the heart of the planning system for the first time. I understand that the Public Bill Committee considering
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that Bill will shortly be dealing with clause 147, which is entitled, “Development plan documents: climate change policies”. That clause sets out that local authorities must include policies in their development plan documents that are

In effect, the clause puts a duty on councils to take action on climate change in preparing their local plans. It does precisely what it says on the tin, and it also does what the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks says on its tin. That duty has been welcomed by stakeholders because of the positive contribution that it will make.

Adam Price: Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), there are so many caveats in the planning policy statement that it is left open for developers to challenge. The policies will not therefore have the statutory force that they would if the Bill were passed.

Mr. Wright: I am not entirely certain what the hon. Gentleman is getting at. The point that I am advancing is that clause 147 of the Planning Bill, which will be debated very shortly, will introduce in primary legislation the very point that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks wants to make with his Bill.

Adam Price: The Minister just said that the clause will place a general duty to refer to climate change measures. It does not go into microgeneration or low-energy generation, which are what we are talking about today. The two things are related, but they are not the same.

Mr. Wright: I can understand the hon. Gentleman’s point that the subjects are related. As an enabling Government, we are providing a web of policies, guidance and legislation to ensure that everything is captured, and at the same time we are ensuring that local authorities step up to the plate and make provisions according to their responsibilities on a range of matters—particularly on climate change and planning, but also on housing growth and economic development. We have adopted precisely the right approach. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me on that.

Section 19(2) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 states that in preparing a development plan document, local planning authorities must have regard to

That guidance includes the planning policy statement on climate change that we published last month—this is the point that the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) just touched upon—which will in effect set the parameters for implementing the duty set out in clause 147 of the Planning Bill. That clause, the requirements of the 2004 Act and the PPS together implement our proposal in the planning White Paper to legislate in order to set out clearly the role of
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local planning authorities in tackling energy efficiency and climate change. That should be welcomed by Members in all parties.

I am a junior Housing Minister, and that is incredibly important today— [ Laughter. ] I still have my phone on, though. The point has been made that housing contributes a great deal to our carbon emissions—something like 26 or 27 per cent. We need to do something to cut that. That is why—this has been mentioned time and again by hon. Members on both sides of the House—from 2016, all new homes will be zero-carbon. What do we mean by zero-carbon? The definition is that over the course of a year there will be net zero-carbon emissions from homes, including from heating, lighting and appliances—everything from the TV to the fridge. We are the first country in the world to be so ambitious, particularly when our ambitious targets for housing growth are considered. We want to have 3 million such homes by 2020 and 2 million by 2016.

There is agreement from green organisations and house builders that our goal is achievable. More than 170 organisations in the building industry have already signed up to our zero-carbon target. The recent review of the house building industry by John Calcutt confirmed that that industry has the skills and capacity to deliver environmentally sustainable housing growth. As Calcutt recommended, we will set up a delivery body to ensure that we reach that target. We will outline the details of that organisation shortly.

We already have a clear timetable for raising the energy efficiency standards of homes, with progressively tough standards enshrined in building regulations. In 2010, there will be a 25 per cent. improvement from 2006 in the number of homes built to comply with part L of the building standards. In 2013, there will be a 44 per cent. increase in those standards. We are putting in place a series of measures to set us firmly on the path of achieving the zero-carbon target. They include measures to promote energy efficiency, and also to promote the greater use of renewable energy. One method alone, I suggest, will not be enough.

With a demanding national timetable, it is important that councils have a strategic local lead, including through their planning responsibilities. Our new planning rules, backed by the climate duty in the Planning Bill, provide a strong framework for the collaborative and responsible working needed to make that happen. [ Interruption. ] Perhaps the hon. Member for Upminster would agree that someone has left the kettle on. They have put too much water in it, and it keeps boiling and boiling.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. If the Minister goes on like that, there will be great confusion in the Official Report.

Mr. Wright: I stand corrected, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We have also talked about the code for sustainable homes. Again, this is an important point. The Housing and Regeneration Bill is in Committee. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who is a member of that Committee, has to suffer my company daily. That Bill will make it mandatory for all new homes to be rated against the code for sustainable homes. The code demonstrates the overall
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sustainability of each new home—not just in energy efficiency, but in water use. Standards set out in the code match up with the progressively demanding building regulations that will be introduced. Code level 6 represents zero-carbon and exemplary development in energy and water efficiency.

By making it mandatory for homes to have a sustainability rating, we are providing the information that consumers need to make informed judgments when they buy. Homes built to higher code levels, for example, are likely to have lower fuel bills, which any prospective buyer will consider important. They will move the market accordingly. Fridge ratings could form an analogy. Five or 10 years ago, people did not know what fridge ratings were, and now no one would buy a fridge or other white appliance if it was not energy rated. I think that homes will go down a similar path.

It is not mandatory for all homes to be assessed. In some circumstances, developers will be building only to minimum building regulations and there is no need to make them pay for an unnecessary assessment. However, English Partnerships is already building at code level 3. The Housing Corporation will join it for the next affordable housing programme. That will give developers that are building mixed developments a choice about whether they want to be seen to build homes that are less sustainable than Government-funded housing programmes. They will have to consider that when they market their new homes. We are already seeing movement in the building industry to support the code. Developers can already use the code voluntarily. Berkeley Homes, for example, has already committed to building all new homes to code level 3.

Local planning authorities are already working with developers in innovative and imaginative ways to help us to meet our house building targets and to ensure that those houses are more stable and resilient, so that they can deal with the challenges posed by climate change, such as more extreme weather and floods. We also believe that we need to develop a similar approach for non-domestic buildings, so that all new shops, offices and so on would have to be zero-carbon. The work undertaken by the UK Green Building Council suggests that it would be possible, in the right circumstances, for the majority of non-domestic buildings to be zero-carbon by 2020. We are considering those findings.

The final element that I want to mention is the biggie: last month’s planning policy statement on climate change. It has four main themes. The first is the aim to ensure that local plans have strong carbon ambitions and targets. That will fully integrate tackling climate change into all planning policy. It will ensure that councils will take such issues into account when considering the location for new developments so that they can take full advantage of local renewable and low-carbon energy opportunities. The PPS emphasises the need for delivery, accelerating action so that plans do not simply sit on shelves.

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