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House Building

Volume 447: debated on Thursday 22 June 2006

2. What discussions he plans to have with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the environmental impact of house building. (79342)

3. What assessment he has made of the new reservoirs, treatment plans and sewerage systems that will be required as a consequence of forecast new housing development. (79344)

The Department is already working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government on the environmental impacts of house building. I recently met the Minister for Housing and Planning, Ofwat and the Environment Agency to discuss water supply and plans for new housing.

Water companies’ 25-year water resources plans identify the need for five new and three extended reservoirs. The need for additional capacity in sewerage infrastructure is one of the main issues that is considered in the growth point bids.

I thank the Minister for his reply. When he next holds discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government on water supplies, will he support its view that 200,000 extra homes will lead to only a one in 1,000 increase in total water use, or that of Professor McDonald, as expressed in the eighth report of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, that the prediction of a minor increase in water demand is at odds with every other forecast?

The Government want to see new housing development and to give people the right to affordable housing in the south-east. However, that housing must be sustainable. That is why DEFRA, the Environment Agency and Natural England are working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government on its new growth point scheme. As part of that, we are closely considering water supplies, sewerage infrastructure, flood risk and biodiversity. It is right that any proposals must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability. We will not accept proposals that we believe would damage the environment or that did not provide for adequate water supplies.

The Minister will recall that, during the statement in the House a couple of weeks ago, he bizarrely told me that my constituents and I were wrong and that the large number of houses being built in the south-east would have almost no impact on the current water crisis. He now knows that the Lords Science and Technology Committee—a Committee of experts—has reported and backed us up. Will he accept that he is wrong and they are right?

No, I do not accept that. We will respond to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report in due course. The key matter to stress is that work can be done to improve water efficiency. For example, Anglian Water has maintained water supplies of 1.2 billion litres a day—the same amount as in 1989—but it is supplying 20 per cent. more households today. That shows what can be done about water efficiency.

It is important that we ensure that water sustainability is built into the new growth point scheme. Any proposals must also go through the planning process. The Conservatives need to be clear about whether they want new homes to be built for young couples. Your leader says—

Is not it time that we required the construction industry to design all new buildings, domestic or otherwise, to operate using only non-mains water, either recycled or collected on site, to flush toilets?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We are working on a new code for sustainable homes, and the Department for Communities and Local Government is leading that work. We believe that new homes should be built to the highest standards of water and energy efficiency. Grey water systems and sustainable housing are very much part of our thinking as a Government—we want to encourage that.

I am interested in my hon. Friend’s comments about Anglian Water. Given Thames Water’s appalling water leakage rates, does he believe that there will be enough water to serve the new housing developments in London?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that Thames Water’s leakage levels are unacceptably high. It recently reported that it had failed again to meet its target. That is a matter for the regulator in the first instance. Ofwat has already said that it views the issue as serious and that it will scrutinise the company’s return before deciding on regulatory action. As my hon. Friend knows, Ofwat is responsible for setting leakage targets and has powers to deal with poor performance under the Water Act 2003, which Conservative Members voted against.

I am grateful to the Minister for identifying the failure of Thames Water, the scale of which is staggering. Ofwat’s latest figures show that it is leaking 200 million litres of water a day more than it was at the beginning of the last five-year period. Ofwat described this significant failure yesterday as very serious and unacceptable. As the Minister pointed out, Ofwat has not said what it is going to do about it. What is he going to do about it?

It is Ofwat’s responsibility as the economic regulator to take action, and it has powers under law to do so. Those powers are contained in the Water Act 2003, which the Conservatives inexplicably voted against. We will not pre-empt Ofwat’s response, but we expect it thoroughly to examine the company’s return and to take the appropriate action.

Will the Minister assist my constituency, which has to have thousands of extra houses and their attendant cars and pollution, and which already has air quality management areas? Will he send a message to councils about how to deal with these air quality management issues? Will any extra funding or help be given to councils to deal with the existing issues?

Air quality has certainly been better than it has been for decades. It is the responsibility of local authorities in the first instance to take these matters forward. Let us be clear that new houses are required in the south-east. If we are going to do the right thing by thousands upon thousands of young couples who want affordable homes in the south-east, we have to take action, and that is what the Government are doing. But we are taking action and taking care of the environment at the same time, which is why my Department, the Environment Agency and Natural England are all involved in the new proposals.

The Minister talked about increasing water capacity, but is he aware that Northumbria Water, which owns a water company in Essex, has been trying to increase capacity by raising the banks of an existing reservoir by 10 ft? The company reckons that if it finally gets planning permission for this, it will have taken 18 years from the moment the scheme was first put into play to the time when the water is actually in the reservoir. Surely it is time for the planning processes relating to such schemes to be simplified.

I am not responsible for the planning processes. Water companies’ 25-year water resources plans often include schemes for building new reservoirs and for extending existing ones, and it is right that such schemes should go through a robust planning process, because people have to be consulted on these matters. However, the whole House will agree that planning processes should be as efficient as possible. The Government have done quite a lot to speed up such processes, but they should not be speeded up at the expense of individual rights.

We all want affordable housing in the south-east—there is no question about that—but we also want the people who live in them to have access to water. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on achieving Royal Assent for his Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill? That will have a significant and positive impact on improving energy efficiency in new homes, and on promoting renewable energy. Is it not ironic, however, that the Bill fell under the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry? Is not this another example of how impotent DEFRA has become? The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has just made a very sensible suggestion. What plans does DEFRA have to introduce its own legislation to ensure that house building is compatible with the natural resources of the country and the planet, and, in particular, that there are adequate water supplies to ensure that the new homes are worth living in?

I certainly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on his Bill receiving Royal Assent. However, there is a difference between us and the Conservatives on these issues. The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) is on record as saying that the present level of house building is excessive, but the Government do not believe that to be the case. We believe that thousands of young couples should have the opportunity to have new houses, but that has to be achieved in a sustainable way. That is why we are working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government on its growth point plans, so that, when the schemes come forward, those growth point areas will have been subjected to a rigorous analysis of the environmental impacts and benefits. That is the right way to do it. The Conservatives say that they want to see house building, yet they support early-day motions that oppose new house building. That strikes me as the activity of a party that is neither responsible nor in control.