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"local flood risk management strategy",
which will be developed by a county council or a local district council in the regional spatial plans that we discussed earlier. Specific attention is paid to the environmental impact of house building, particularly in local communities. In my constituency in Basingstoke, as a result of the south-east development plan, we have undertaken an extensive four-year water cycle study, to consider pollution levels in our local river. Various consultations have been undertaken by water companies and the Environment Agency to make sure that we are aware of environmental issues as they pertain to house building and planning.
However, when I look at the actions of Government Departments other than DEFRA, I question whether there is complete buy-in to the goal of environmental sustainability, and whether the Bill offers Ministers the opportunity to make sure that their colleagues in other Departments have got the message. In relation to house building particularly, environmental sustainability cannot be ignored. As the hon. Lady said, we cannot set it to one side. It is a matter on which we will be judged by our children and our children's children.
Perhaps in the Department for Communities and Local Government there is not complete buy-in to the concept of sustainability. Having examined the problems in my constituency, I cannot understand why the Department would endorse a building target of 19,000 houses by 2026 if it truly bought into the vision of environmental sustainability. Along with many areas of the south-east, Basingstoke is an area of serious water stress. The Government acknowledge that the effects of climate change will lead to a reduction in the supply of water in my constituency and an increase in demand.
In terms of water supply, the situation in north Hampshire is worse than in some Mediterranean countries. My local river, the River Loddon, is in extreme breach of the European water framework directive. The phosphorus levels-which, as the Minister is aware, are directly linked to levels of population-are six times higher than recommended by the water framework directive standards because of the effluent discharges from my local sewage works. I am told by those who are expert in these matters that there is no sewage treatment works in the country and no technology in the world that could reduce the pollution in that river to levels consistent with the water framework directive. Building one more house, let alone 19,000 more, is problematic if we are to be truly sustainable in our approach to developing our communities.
I mentioned earlier that there has been an expensive and extensive water cycle report, which has been going on for about four years. That has confirmed that house building levels set by Ministers through their regional
assemblies will perpetuate the situation. There will be no improvement in the water quality and the pollution levels in my local river if house building continues in the way that the Government foresee. In case hon. Members are not aware, the river is a north-flowing salmonoid river, one of very few in the country, and a prize possession in our local area.
In my constituency, 75 per cent. of the water comes from chalk aquifers, so abstraction of water from underground is key. Even before the proposed increase in house building, the way we get our water is resulting in a lowering of the water table because of the increased abstractions that we have had to undertake in recent years. As a result of excessive abstraction in the neighbouring Whitewater valley area, there is already possible environmental damage, which is being closely monitored. On behalf of my constituents, I pay tribute to the work of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight wildlife trust for all the work that it does in identifying and protecting fragile and important areas such as the Mapledurwell fen, where there is a risk to the environment from a lowering of the water table as a result of high abstraction levels.
Too many of the tools that the Government are foisting on local authorities do not seem to take account of the importance of environmental sustainability. I refer to the strategic housing land availability assessments, with which many other hon. Members may be grappling-those nicely termed SHLAAs, as our local councillors are starting to call them. They are being used to determine where houses might end up, without even considering issues of biodiversity or the quality of the landscape and its importance in the local community. Despite all these troubling environmental indicators, my constituency, along with the south-east, is being earmarked as the centre of house building in the country.
We cannot allow the debate to go by without Ministers responding to that. There seems to be a disconnect between house building and environmental sustainability, and the consequent overloading of the south-east with house building. What assurances can the Secretary of State give when he winds up the debate to me, my constituents and other Members who represent areas in the south-east about the priority that should be given to environmental sustainability in the context of house building in the future? The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change spoke about making hard choices. I do not see those hard choices being made when it comes to saying no to development that might fundamentally affect the environmental quality and sustainability of our communities in the future.
I know that many hon. Members are keen to participate in the debate because it is such an important subject for us and our constituents. The second area that I shall touch on is the involvement of local communities, which is picked up in the Flood and Water Management Bill. I welcome the apparent increase in the role of local authorities in strategy and planning for flood management.
The hon. Member for Llanelli stressed the importance of clarity of roles. Reading through the Bill, I can understand that the intention is to clarify the roles undertaken by county councils and district councils, and that the Government are rightly introducing some flexibility so that local authorities can work matters out for themselves. Let us make sure that that flexibility does not turn into a lack of understanding, particularly
among constituents who might be affected by these issues, and that there is a clear demarcation of role in practice.
A further question that I would throw to those on the Government Front Bench is how local authorities can balance the conflicting priorities of hitting the Government's house building targets and being responsible for managing flood risk. As we have heard in the debate, those could be conflicting priorities. Where are they to put the houses if the housing number is set so solidly, if they are restricted by the risk of flooding or unsuitability for other environmental reasons? We must make sure that we address that conflict. I urge the Minister, if he has not already done so, to look at the proposals put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), which would help enormously to overcome some of the conflicts by putting the scheduling of house building and the determination of house building levels into the hands of local elected representatives.
Martin Horwood: Some of the conflicts that the hon. Lady rightly describes could be resolved by more careful examination of the numbers behind regional spatial strategies. The RSS for the south-west is still based on a 3 per cent. per annum growth rate maintained consistently over 20 years, which is clearly not being achieved at present.
Mrs. Miller: The hon. Gentleman is right to question the numbers. Rather than questioning the numbers myself, I should like my local elected representatives to be in charge of house building and the scale of house building that might be undertaken in that locality. They are best placed to know how a community should develop, and how they want their community to develop. That is where the power should lie, rather than in Whitehall, as it has in recent years.
The hon. Member for Llanelli spoke about private sewers. I thought I might be the only person to pick that topic out of the Bill. It seems that many of the 200,000 km of private sewers reside in my constituency. For hon. Members who have not encountered it, the issue is that housing estates are developed and because of their set-up the sewerage systems, which we would naturally presume would be handed over to the relevant authority to be maintained, remain the responsibility of local residents. That can come as something of a shock to some residents, but even more of a shock are the bills that are sometimes associated with such private sewers.
I see the Under-Secretary nodding in agreement that that provision is quite firmly in the Bill, but I ask for clarification about how it will be rolled out, because it is a potentially significant financial issue for local water companies-the organisations that will take over responsibility for private sewerage systems. Many sewers in my constituency have deteriorated significantly because of a lack of maintenance, mostly due to tree roots having gone through the sides of pipes and caused blockages and as a result of the sort of flooding referred to.
Will the Secretary of State offer some assurance that simply handing over ownership to a third party-to a water company-will not be a paper exercise, and that those companies will be able to undertake the maintenance that has not been what it should have been in recent years? I am aware of the water bill levy that is intended to pay for some of that, but will there be an imperative
for maintenance, and how will it be dealt with? Will he confirm that he intends the legislation to come into force as soon as possible? Why do we have to wait until 2011? If it is going to happen, it should happen sooner rather than later, so that residents in areas such as Popley in my constituency can rest easier in their beds, without the threat of sewage flooding, which has become an all too common incident for too many of them.
In conclusion, I shall pick up on something that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who is no longer in his place, said in his concluding remarks. He said that the 21st century is the period of mass sustainability, and I could not agree more. That should be our watchword, and I say amen to that comment. The right hon. Gentleman was the architect of the problems of overdevelopment and excessive house building and with planning for the future that I am dealing with in my constituency. My local council in Basingstoke is grappling with many issues that were formed under his stewardship of that part of the Government, so perhaps his successor, who is now responsible for that area of Government policy, will hear the words that the right hon. Gentleman sagely uttered today and act now to ensure that future house building is environmentally sustainable not just in my constituency and the south-east, but in all our constituencies. The Government should use the Bill in the Queen's Speech to underline to people not just on the outside but on their own side that environmental sustainability has to be the name of the game.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I have been listening to these speeches about how this is the important issue, and 23 Members of the House of Commons have managed to stay this long, or were here in the first place, out of 646, so it has clearly captured the imagination of this country's elected representatives. In a similar way, everyone's propaganda will say that this is their top priority, or one of their top priorities, in the months to come.
I listened with interest to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who is not now present. He made a good speech, and I am glad that he is going to Kyoto, because he has done a lot of the ground work. [Hon. Members: "Copenhagen."] He was in Kyoto and he is going to Copenhagen. However, I heard the sneering remark from the Liberal hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who is also not present, about how people should not fly to Copenhagen. I call that the "Monbiot syndrome", after T he Guardian writer. What such people do, from their intellectually high position, is sneer on the masses when it comes to everything to do with the environment, and they believe that, in some way, such tokenistic little gestures move things on. Well, they do not. They polarise the population and people dismiss the idea that what we say is important.
No. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey is not here, but if he wants to come back, I may take an intervention from him. I noted that
sneering, by a Member who drives around one of the nearest constituencies to Westminster in a car, when most of his constituents are happy to go on the bus and on the underground. That syndrome, which involves sneering about action on the environment, undermines the case for the environment.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Member is making a quite considerable attack on a Member who is not present. I suggest that he returns to his speech and to a contribution to the debate.
"We all know," said a Conservative Front Bencher, "that coal-fired power stations are to close." Well, actually, we do not all know that. When will that happen? What is the time scale? It shows the vagueness that has slipped in and become major statements. I happen to have two coal-fired power stations in my constituency, and nobody has told the company that runs them that the power stations will be closing. Indeed, it has just invested many tens of millions of pounds in technology to green the stations, and it has done so with Government support. Therefore, it is not accurate to say that we all know that coal-fired power stations will be closing-not in my constituency. They will not be closing, those jobs will not be going and that energy will be required. Such statements show the shoddiness of the debate.
If we were to ask, "In 30, 40, 50 years' time, what power stations should there be, and what do we want to see there?", we would rightly recognise that the new gas-fired power stations being built alongside existing stations are an interim stage. There will be stages beyond that. However, a party, presuming that it will be in power, suggests that it is going to close down coal-fired power stations. No, it is not, and if it is, it should give us the time scale, because my constituents, as producers and consumers of that energy, will want to know when they are going to close. The Government encouraged new and wise investments in flue gas desulphurisation units, and EDF and the power stations put up the money. Those units green the use of coal in order to create power, and they have a long life span, which is precisely why I and my local community welcome that investment.
However, that does not mean that I agree with the consensus, but I have heard a little bit of consensus. The Government are in favour of wind farms and the Opposition are in favour of wind farms, so there will be wind farms everywhere. Well, I am no nimby: there is a power station, literally, in my backyard. I look out my window and see and admire it every time that I am at home. There is a second one just down the road, a gas-fired power station is being built alongside a massive one and doubtless there will be more in the future. We are not nimbys, but we are not going to be surrounded by windmills on one side and power stations on the other, so those windmills can go where the wind don't blow, as far as I and most of my constituents are concerned.
We are not having anything anywhere, and that consideration must be part of the process. Those of us who have power stations in our backyards have a right to say that we are not having more in front of us than we have behind us, or, in some householders' cases, more behind them than they have in front of them. It
depends which way we look at these things. That is a critical factor. When we scrutinise the legislation, I want to ensure that there is no sneaky way something can be imposed on us. I will not vote for anything that can impose windmills on us when we have the power stations already. Far more windmills should be put out where the wind does blow-out at sea-as the Danes and others have learned. That is where the majority of wind farms should go. I think that we will see more resistance to the indiscriminate location of something that makes a tiny contribution to the energy supply, but undermines the concept of environmentalism for my constituents and others. That is an important consideration.
I heard the Secretary of State dismiss, perhaps unwisely, the notion that there should be amendments to his Bill. It behoves Secretaries of State, particularly young ones with ambitions for the future, to listen not only to the Opposition but to the country and to their own Back Benchers. I am pleased to see that three Ministers-there were five a moment ago-are in their place taking notes of the points that I am making. There is a series of potential amendments that would improve the Government's performance on the environment. Let us not have too much rigidity on wind farms. In Germany-I think the figures are two-years-old-14 per cent. of households have solar energy. That is extraordinary. Based on my occasional visits there, Germany is no warmer than my constituency or the rest of Britain-it is about the same. If the Germans can have 14 per cent., we can have more. We can manufacture that sort of technology in this country, thereby creating manufacturing jobs. I am bewildered as to why we allow new house building without insisting that it should get preferential planning consent-not in any area, but in appropriate areas-if such technologies were built into it. We are making a major error by failing to encourage solar panels and other such technologies in all new buildings-we should be incentivising that in a big way.
I would go a stage further. How do we sell to retired miners who are only just giving up their solid fuel fires-some have still not done so-the concept of alternative green technologies? I could do that in any of the homes in my constituency; they are often little bungalows. The way to do it is to stick in a solar panel for free and give those people free hot water. The retired miners who dug the coal in my constituency would be rather pleased to have free hot water. It might not be on every day of the year-the experts can tell me that-but for most of the year they would get free hot water, and as the technology developed they would get more than that.
To me, that is common sense, so why are we not doing it? We could be giving young people apprenticeships in these new manufacturing technologies so that we are the leader, pump-priming in the way that the Americans long ago learned to use contract compliance, not least with the armed services, to pump-prime manufacturing and new technologies. We should be doing the same. That would be a more complex amendment, but the principle is simple-to get our manufacturing industry going with products that the public will see as common sense and as things that matter in everyday life. None of my constituents would turn down free hot water-not one. That is where we should be taking these policies. If we cannot manage to do that by amending the Bill, perhaps the opportunity will come with next year's Budget, if not the pre-Budget report.
I was perplexed by the consensus between those on the Front Benches on communal heating. The Secretary of State was a little equivocal, but the Conservative spokesman was absolutely certain. The Conservatives back district heating systems, just as the Soviets did when they pioneered communal heating systems and built them across the Soviet empire. That was how people had to live. They were told, "Here's your heating-you will have it. If it's too hot, you'll open the window, and if it's too cold you'll put a coat on." We now find, in local authority areas such as mine, these cranky old boilers that are years out of date and pump out the heating, not very efficiently. I know a little bit of physics. Some people like the extra heat, but others do not, and with a centralised system, there is nothing they can do other than open the windows. The heat pours out, and they get the bill. They come to me and say, "This is stupid. Look at our bill-it's far more than anybody else's. It's bad for the environment and bad for my pocket-I'm paying for something I don't want." There is an opportunity to move away from the Soviet structures so beloved by the new Conservative party, as articulated this afternoon-much to the horror of one or two of its Back Benchers, as I can see from their facial expressions. I encourage them to sort out their Front Benchers on this issue. These Soviet systems are not efficient for the environment or for the consumer, so let us change them. That could be done easily and immediately, with a few extra bits of pump-priming of the economy as new boilers and systems had to be installed by local suppliers.
I am surprised that the issue of mushroom farm composting is missing from the Queen's Speech. In the villages of Misson, Harwell and Everton, the biggest single emissions are those from the Tunnel Tech mushroom composting factory. No one else would know about that-apart from my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who has Bawtry, which is also affected, in her constituency. There is only one such area in Britain. Following my interventions, we have managed to get some regulations on this, and I believe that the Secretary of State has indicated that there will be more over the winter.
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