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9 May 2008 : Column 1023
1.51 pm

Julia Goldsworthy: The Minister said that some contributions to the debate were briefer than others. The length of my remarks will be inversely proportional to how much I support the Bill, so I will aim to keep them very short indeed.

I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) on getting so far so quickly—even though it might not have felt like it at times in the debate on the amendments—and on persuading the Government to respond to the issues raised. To echo the comments of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), that experience stands in stark contrast to the experience of the Committee that considered the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which faced difficulties in moving the issue forward. In developing in this Bill some of the principles that were laid out in that Act, we have all learned how to work with one another to progress such matters. The process has developed what is contained in the 2007 Act.

Many hon. Members present deserve congratulations on their work, as do those hon. Members who are not in the Chamber, but who helped the hon. Member for Sevenoaks to work and rework the wording of the Bill. It is important that we should pay tribute to those without whom the Bill would not have been possible, namely the local councils. They have been driving the agenda forward since 2003 and have demonstrated genuine ambition in what they thought could be achieved in the development of their areas. They include not just Merton council, but other councils that have been blazing the trail and the more than 100 others that are at various stages of trying to push the issue forward. If those councils had not shown what can be achieved and what they want to achieve, we would not be debating the Bill now.

Fundamentally, the Bill is about ensuring that what councils want to achieve is not just enshrined in planning policy statements or the guidance that accompanies them, but put on a statutory footing, so that it becomes less open to the debate and reinterpretation that can make the planning process so destabilising. Many councils have found it difficult to do anything other than conform to the lowest common denominator set by the Government.

The Bill is not about imposing standards on councils, but about allowing those that want to go further in energy efficiency and energy use to do so. Some councils have, up to now, been experiencing difficulties. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) raised the issue on Second Reading. He highlighted the experience of Cambridge city council, which wants to achieve higher standards, but has been turned down on appeal because of a conservative interpretation of the existing planning policy guidance.

David Howarth: I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the difficulties and frustrations that Cambridge council faced in trying to get higher energy standards through the national system. That is indeed one of the origins of the Bill. It will be a matter of great relief in Cambridge when it is passed. Will she join me in urging the Government to do whatever they can to get the Bill through the other place as quickly as possible? Some developments—in Cambridge and elsewhere—have had to be dealt with under the old rules, which they should not have been.
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Until the Bill is finally passed, however, such developments will still have to be dealt with in the unsatisfactory way of the past. Speed really is of the essence.

Julia Goldsworthy: I could not agree more. My hon. Friend’s comments contrast with the scenario painted by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) when he presented some of his amending provisions. The hon. Gentleman said that some councils might struggle to fit into a faster time scale; in fact, plenty of councils are champing at the bit to move this issue forward as quickly as possible. Indeed, they often want to impose parity of standards between social and private housing and to extend the provisions to all other developments.

Issues of energy efficiency in the home have been raised, but we are talking about new developments. In social housing, Housing Corporation funding is dependent on higher energy efficiency standards that do not read across to private sector development. The Bill will allow councils to ensure that such read-across and parity of treatment is achieved. They can go beyond minimum standards and impose “standard” levels and requirements for all new buildings in local authority areas.

Mr. Dismore: I am not sure that I have understood the hon. Lady’s last point. Presumably, private sector builders would meet higher standards anyway because of the pressures of the housing market. The real problem has always been with social housing, which has been seen as some sort of second-class construction— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) can intervene if he wants to when I have finished my intervention; he cannot intervene on my intervention. As I was saying, social housing has always been the Cinderella and has seldom reached the high standards that we would expect. I agree that we need to level up standards across the board, but the hon. Lady may be drawing a false distinction in her comments.

Julia Goldsworthy: I think that the hon. Gentleman is getting confused. What he said may be the case with existing housing stock, but I am trying to praise the Government—his Government—for the higher standards that are coming from Housing Corporation funding, particularly the higher standards that are required for new build social housing. We need to be very careful to distinguish between problems in respect of existing housing stock, whether it be owner-occupied, privately rented or available for social rent, and the new stock. Nowadays it is easier to impose higher standards for social housing because money is involved and the requirements can follow the funding.

The problem for many councils—it will apply until the Bill becomes law—has been the attitude towards risk. More risk-averse councils—those fearful of the cost of losing an appeal—are wary of doing anything other than meet the minimum standards. Some councils have been blazing a trail, but for others it is a risk that they do not want to take. The Bill will minimise the risk, which is why it is so welcome.

The Bill will make a real and tangible change to the approach to climate change, particularly in respect of development. It will allow local authorities to be freer
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to seek higher standards. I am optimistic that it will act as a catalyst in the race to the top in terms of performance on energy efficiency and energy use. It will contrast with the current system of targets, as it will help to create a lowest common denominator, ensuring that the people at the bottom do not drag their feet, without hindering those who want to race forward to achieve as much as they can. It will give real power to communities, showing what they can achieve in a way that is appropriate to their local circumstances.

The Bill is very specific—that is one of its benefits—and we need to realise that. Massive issues—issues that contribute massively to carbon emissions—remain to be addressed in respect of our existing housing stock, and they have not been tackled by the Bill. We must remember that there are issues that need to be addressed. The Bill’s text speaks for itself, as does the degree of support that has been won for it, and I ask the Minister to do everything possible to get it on to the statute book as soon as possible, so that we can see real leadership at local level and allow solutions to local needs to be properly championed by local authorities.

2 pm

Mr. Dismore: I congratulate the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) on achieving, I believe, the Third Reading of his Bill today; we have about half an hour to go, but I think he will comfortably achieve his target. To get a private Member’s Bill through this House is a remarkable achievement, and very few Members succeed in it. He should be congratulated not only on his success in delivering his Bill through the House today, but on the good-humoured way in which he has set about his work. He has listened to what people have said to him, he has been prepared to amend the Bill to reflect the views expressed, particularly by the Government, and as a result he has produced a Bill that is worthy of support and that should be able to progress further today.

When the hon. Gentleman introduced the Bill on Second Reading, he said:

The Merton rule is that 10 per cent. of the new energy required for a development must come from renewable or low-carbon sources on or near that development. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has quite been able to achieve the objective of enshrining that rule in law, because the 10 per cent. figure is not there, but I actually think he has achieved something more useful. The problem with the Merton rule is that it is potentially inflexible for local authorities that might have difficulties with it. How he has proceeded may be akin to going at the pace of the slowest ship in the convoy, but it means that there will be progress across the piece, because most local authorities will take on board his proposals.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) has identified one of the key problems both with the Bill and also more generally: the lack of impact on existing housing stock. We debated that today in relation to some of my new clauses—particularly in response to interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), who raised the point. It will be very difficult to interpret the Bill as it
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now stands as giving local authorities powers to intervene in relation to existing developments. The extent of that problem becomes clear when we consider the figures I mentioned earlier, such as that a low percentage of houses in the country comply with the insulation requirements, never mind some of the other desirable factors that lead to a reduction in energy consumption.

That is a lacuna in the Bill, but it is not the hon. Gentleman’s fault. It would be very difficult to devise a Bill that dealt with existing properties and would not be draconian to the householders concerned and potentially leave them facing enormous bills. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) said, however, if we start with newbuild we can begin to get economies of scale—through modern prefabrication methods and better use of technology, for example—and start to make some real progress towards achieving these targets. It is important that we do not forget the older properties; we will have to find a way of dealing with them, but that will have to be a Bill for another day, if anyone can devise one that will achieve that.

We need to look at the reasons why the hon. Gentleman introduced the Bill, and why the House should approve it today. The UK has to satisfy two sets of renewables targets, both of which will be extremely challenging. The first is our own domestic target of 10 per cent. of electricity generation to be met from renewable sources by 2010, and an aspiration of 20 per cent. by 2020. The second, as the Minister mentioned, is the EU’s binding target, to which the previous Prime Minister signed up at the spring European Council meeting of March 2007, that 20 per cent. of the overall European energy mix be generated from renewables by 2020.

The EU’s target, which encompasses all forms of energy, will clearly be much more difficult to meet than the UK’s simple electricity target. Electricity accounted for only 18.5 per cent. of the energy used in the UK in 2006, the latest year for which figures are available. Nuclear power—the elephant in the room when anyone talks about energy policy—as a low-carbon source, is to count towards the EU target, and there is to be some burden sharing, but there is no doubt that the proposal will be very difficult to achieve.

As has also been mentioned, this is not the first attempt to introduce a Bill along these lines; my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) attempted to do so previously. An Opposition Member has been able to get further than one of my hon. Friends in achieving the same objective, which might be a reflection of how the different Bills were phrased, but it might also reflect the growing awareness in the House of the importance of taking action to deal with the serious problem that this Bill seeks to address. As time goes by, we are becoming increasingly aware of the problems of climate change—the latest figures show that CO2 emissions have risen consistently over the past four years—and energy efficiency, as promulgated by the Bill, is the simplest and most cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions.

As we have heard, the planning system does not make sufficient provision for energy efficiency. The Liberal Democrats have told us about the problems that Cambridge city council has faced. It was required to water down its planning policy, which required large developers to

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The Government inspector said that the policy was

What happened in Cambridge—the man from Bristol interfering in the way that he did—brings into sharp focus the essential nature of the Bill, because it will entirely plug that gap in the law, assuming that the requirements that a local authority intends to impose are reasonable; we do not want unreasonable requirements to be imposed. That is why when we started on the trail of this Bill to talk about percentages and the original Merton rule, we could have created problems, because imposing particular fixed percentages could have created difficulties for some local authorities, although not for others.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has launched two consultations on the planning issues. The first is on the proposed planning policy statement on planning and climate change, and the second is on the Government’s plans for moving towards zero carbon development by 2016. Both are underpinned by the new voluntary code for sustainable homes, on whose progress the Minister brought us a little more up to date.

We must ask how the Bill will change the current position; any assessment of the Bill must be based on that question. In responding to my second group of proposals, the Minister would have been aware that I had pushed him very hard on this matter, because there is no point in the House passing legislation if it will not achieve anything or if no value added flows from it. One of my main concerns about how he replied to the debate was his saying, “Well we have these national standards.” He seemed to be slightly blinkered in not reflecting on what the Bill will do, which is move beyond those national standards. Ultimately, the Planning Inspectorate, which is answerable to the Minister’s boss, the Secretary of State, will also have to reflect on that and on what it will mean. It will mean being prepared to go beyond the national standards. They may well be the safety net and the bottom rung of the ladder—the Minister expanded on those very effectively—but we must go beyond them.

Showing how the Bill will change the current position might not be as easy as it seems. As we have heard today, the Government have introduced policies to encourage on-site energy generation, renewables and energy conservation. In particular, the 2004 planning policy statement on renewable energy and the 2007 planning policy statement on climate change include guidance for local authorities that encourages such action, including on-site generation.

The Bill will provide a statutory basis for including targets in local development frameworks and development plans, but will not specify particular targets. Local authorities will therefore have to think hard and fast about how to do that. Local planning authority policies on environmental standards for new homes vary in their scope, specific requirements and degree of prescription, but there is also variation in how and when local planning authorities seek to apply
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such policies. Some have identified policies on environmental standards in their adopted development plans, or have proposed them in their draft plans.

Changes to the planning system will mean that all councils will be expected to provide for on-site renewable energy and local community energy schemes to help to cut carbon emissions in new developments. The planning rules will mean that councils and developers should consider using items such as solar panels, wind turbines and heat pumps that can generate energy from a site of new development. The word “locality” has caused some difficulty in that regard. The plans that will come through the system will build on the Merton rule, but will not be as prescriptive.

Moving towards a low-carbon economy is a huge challenge that requires a revolution in the way in which we design, heat and power our buildings, as well as a concerted effort from a huge number of organisations, including local authorities, developers, environmental groups and local communities. A simple analysis of the existing position regarding our homes shows the scale of the challenge. The percentage of homes with cavity wall insulation has increased from 20 per cent. of our housing stock in 1996 to 36 per cent. now, but a further 8.5 million homes could benefit from it. That would save a significant amount of energy each year—and it is not an expensive thing to do. That brings us back to our debate about the educational function of the Bill. Its aim has to be encourage local authorities to require more local renewable energy generation and systems such as combined heat and power in new developments.

The Bill provides a mechanism by which local authorities may be allowed to go further and faster than central Government, which will always be the lumbering supertanker coming up behind—if one can use the analogy of an oil tanker in a debate on renewable energy. The Bill gives local authorities the opportunity to forge ahead, speedboat style, and pilot the supertanker by developing new policies that could, if they work, be adopted by the Government as central policies. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound)—a former matelot—is squinting at my nautical analogies. I am probably getting a bit carried away with mixed metaphors.

Stephen Pound: I do not want to be tedious, but there is no way that a supertanker could ever emulate the style of a rigid inflatable boat. Were it to attempt to do so, the consequences would be disastrous.

Mr. Dismore: Yes, but supertankers coming into port need a pilot to show them the way. I hope that local authorities will act as a pilot to the Government in pioneering the way and developing more attractive—

Mr. Evans: While the hon. Gentleman is using naval analogies, if he is talking about the Government, would not the Titanic be a rather better one?

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman has made his little intervention. I certainly do not think that we can talk about the Titanic in relation to this Government; it is much more apt to talk about Queen Mary 2, the magnificent new construction that graces our seas. I see that you, too, are squinting at me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall move on.

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