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Local Planning Authorities (Energy and Energy Efficiency) Bill

Volume 455: debated on Friday 19 January 2007

Order for Second Reading read.

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are not staying for the debate to leave quickly and quietly.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Conscious of the limited time remaining, and keen that the Minister should have adequate time to respond before half-past 2, I will keep my comments fairly brief. I shall be able to do so because the Bill is very short, simple and straightforward. Like the Sustainable Communities Bill, which I am delighted to say has just been given a Second Reading, it would give local councils greater freedom and flexibility—in this case, focused specifically on their responsibilities as planning authorities. It would enable them, if they so choose, 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.

The Bill is about enabling local authorities better to contribute to tackling the problem of climate change, which is undoubtedly the most important challenge for this planet at this time in its history. After the publication of the Stern review, surely no one can doubt either the scale of the problem that we face in global warming, the urgency with which we need to respond to it, or the fact that we will have to utilise a panoply of means to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases in general, and carbon dioxide in particular, in the years that lie immediately ahead. On Tuesday morning, Nick Stern himself made those very points in evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee.

The Bill says that the planning system is one of the weapons that should be available in the battle against climate change. It says, in particular, that it can be used to achieve energy efficiency improvements, which everyone acknowledges are the easiest, quickest and most cost-effective methods of reducing carbon emissions. That is the low-hanging fruit on the climate change tree, and we are not yet harvesting it anything like as well as we should be. The Bill offers one means of turning that round.

Similarly, there is huge scope for using the planning system in certain circumstances to encourage the generation of energy from renewable or other low-carbon sources and the use of energy from local, decentralised energy systems combining heat and power. The Bill would enable councils to limit the carbon footprints in the areas that they serve using planning policies set out in their development plans. I must confess that until the Association for the Conservation of Energy raised this issue with me, I did not know that planning authorities did not already have that freedom. I thank ACE for enlightening me about the variations in interpretation of planning policy by Government officials throughout the country and, more importantly, for the enormous help that it has provided in drafting the Bill and campaigning to achieve its objectives.

At the moment, we have a rather absurd situation in which virtually everyone believes that the planning system can, and should, play a significant role in improvements to energy efficiency and low-carbon generation—our Ministers with responsibility for housing and for energy have said so—but that intention is being thwarted on the ground when certain far-seeing councils try to go beyond building regulations in the production of their development plans. Ministers say that building regulations are minimum standards, but in practice officials interpreting planning policies are treating them as maximum standards.

Let me give a couple of examples. Cambridge city council tried to include in its planning policy a requirement for larger developers to provide evidence of how they have minimised energy consumption, maximised energy efficiency and considered the feasibility of using combined heat and power systems. That is not an unreasonable requirement at this time, one might think, but a Government planning inspector forced the council to water it down and said that it was unreasonable to the extent that it imposed more onerous requirements than building regulations.

I am a little concerned. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if a particular local authority were to be too heavy-handed and impose too great a burden on developers, that could destroy the availability of low-cost housing?

I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point. In fact, my original draft of the Bill dealt not only with development plans but individual planning applications. I think that the development plan process will prevent unreasonable measures. If the Bill gets into Committee, I will consider setting parameters on what local authorities could put in their development plans.

I will not detain the hon. Gentleman for long, as I believe that this is an excellent Bill, which I hope will go into Committee. Ultimately, if local authorities make a mistake and over-egg it, they will be responsible to their local electorate, who will be the best judges of what is appropriate.

That is exactly true.

I was explaining what happened in Cambridge. If we reflect on the fact that it is set to expand its housing by 40 per cent. in the next 15 years, it is easy to see that a golden opportunity to limit greenhouse gas emissions is being sacrificed. That, surely, is absolute nonsense.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for referring to Cambridge city council’s plans. Another important aspect of the problem is that local authorities can and do go further—as Cambridge city council has—in respect of public sector housing, but the key problem is the ability to control what happens in the private sector, which is also the key to the expansion of Cambridge. It is a matter of equality between the two sectors.

That is absolutely true. A strange pattern is developing across the country, with some local authorities—Reading is a good example—being allowed to go further with their development plans. The patchwork that we see at present is a nonsense.

I will, but it will probably be for the last time, as I want to leave the Minister time to respond.

I used to serve as a councillor on Kettering borough council. It takes the view that under the 2006 building regulations it cannot reduce the carbon footprint in its planning applications and development plans beyond what the regulations allow. The leader of Kettering borough council is very supportive indeed of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, and I shall certainly support it.

I am very grateful for that. The problem is that planning inspectors from different Government Departments all around the country are ruling that building regulations are a maximum standard, even though, as I have said, Ministers say that they should be a minimum standard.

Let me provide one other example. Last summer, Bedford borough council produced its draft core strategy and rural issues plan, which included a policy to reduce CO2 emissions by 10 per cent. more than building regulations allowed in certain developments. The Government office for the east of England objected on the grounds that the current planning system did not permit the setting of energy efficiency standards. That needs changing and this Bill will deliver that change.

I would like to pay tribute to the work that the Government have already done in moving forward to achieve their objective of zero carbon homes within 10 years. The code for sustainable homes provides a good and useful measuring stick and I look forward to something above the lower star ratings becoming mandatory in the not too distant future. In the meantime, if my Bill became an Act, the code could be used by local planning authorities to provide the higher benchmark standards that they might want to specify in their policies.

It is right to give due priority to housing. As the Minister for Housing and Planning said, our homes account for “more than a quarter” of our carbon emissions. That is about 40 million tonnes. We also need to be looking to higher standards of energy efficiency and more and better use of low-energy carbon generation in other forms of development. The Bill will enable local planning authorities to require those higher standards in non-residential building projects.

I also welcome the Government’s intentions in the draft policy statement on climate change, published in December, which is now out for consultation. However, in respect of the main subject covered by the Bill, that statement will, if not amended, exacerbate the existing problem. I know that it is a matter of concern for local authorities up and down the country, which I am sure will be evidenced in the consultation process. As currently worded, the policy statement makes it explicit that—except for exceptional circumstances and only in a limited way after certain criteria are met—councils will not be able to set energy-efficiency standards higher than building regulations. If that is not changed, the adoption of the policy statement will mean that most councils will not even attempt to set higher standards for energy efficiency in their planning policies. It would not be worth jumping through all those hoops to achieve what, in the end, would make a very modest difference.

It would be much better, I suggest, to adopt the approach in the Bill, which reflects Government objectives in dealing with climate change and Government policy on freeing local councils to deliver sustainable communities in the broadest sense of the description.

The Bill has wide support throughout England and Wales and its objectives are backed by many individual councils, the Local Government Association and the Welsh Local Government Association. It is supported by all 35 organisations that form the Sustainable Energy Partnership, by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. I mentioned the help that the Association for the Conservation of Energy gave me and I must also thank the Socialist Environment and Resources Association. It is an affiliate of the Labour party and its new president is Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It has worked assiduously to spread the word about the Bill.

The Bill is not party political but a common-sense measure, which hon. Members from all parties have sponsored, and it is supported across the political spectrum. Yesterday, the count for the number of hon. Members who had signed the early-day motion to support the Bill’s objectives stood at 224. That shows the strength of feeling on the subject in the House. In turn, that reflects the strength of feeling in local authorities throughout England and Wales.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government can demonstrate that enthusiasm for the Bill stretches to embrace even the Government. However, I know that some officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government have argued hard against it. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that the measure is in line with Government policy. If it is talked out, there is a danger that that will convey the message that the Government say the right things but fail to exploit the opportunity for genuine action. That would amount to an unnecessary own goal.

I shall be brief for obvious reasons. The principal Opposition party wishes the Bill to move smoothly into Committee so that we have an opportunity to facilitate the aims that the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) so eloquently set out.

As we understand it, the Bill serves two functions, which we wholeheartedly endorse. It makes it easier for local authorities to take more control of their local development framework. In that respect, it is an impeccably localist measure. Perhaps more important, it is in line with the environmental imperatives that Front Benchers of all the principal parties have set out.

The Bill is similar to amendments that were tabled to a previous private Member’s Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) promoted. For that reason, we want to hear the Minister’s comments and are anxious to move to his contribution and to see the Bill passed. We wish it a fair wind.

I, too, am aware of the lack of time and wish to hear the Minister’s comments. I shall therefore say nothing more than that it is an excellent Bill, which we want to get into Committee. We, too, wish it a fair wind.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) on getting at least some time to debate the Bill. Improving energy efficiency is welcome, but we need to be rational and reasonable when considering the measures that legislation should allow. I reassure the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that I have no intention of talking out the Bill.

I simply wish to place on record my concern about clause 1(d) as drafted. I am worried that it could allow a heavy-handed local authority effectively to destroy the availability of low-cost homes. I hope that the Bill’s promoter is prepared to consider that if the measure reaches Committee. A test of reasonableness could be applied, or perhaps clause 1(d) could be amended so that “an energy efficiency standard” was followed by “approved by the Secretary of State”. There needs to be a check on the unrestricted scope of clause 1(d), which could affect the availability of low-cost housing. I would not wish that to happen and I suspect that the Bill’s promoter and other hon. Members share that view.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) on securing the Bill and the opportunity to debate, albeit briefly, such important issues.

I know that my hon. Friend has promoted the Bill because of his deep concern about climate change and his strong commitment to tackling carbon emissions. That reflects a lifetime commitment to protecting our environment. Suffice it to say that the Government share that concern and commitment to act decisively.

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the important role of the planning systems and of local authorities. When used positively, planning can help in securing enduring progress against the UK’s emissions targets by exerting direct influence on energy use and emissions and bringing together and encouraging action by others. The climate change planning policies, on which we are consulting, put the aim of securing the highest viable standards of resource and energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions at the heart of what the Government expect from planning. My hon. Friend’s intentions therefore very much reflect those of the Government.

We have important concerns about the Bill, however, and we must take those seriously. I hope that the new measures that I shall announce today and the existing policy already implemented will convince my hon. Friend that his Bill is not necessary. Although he might be disappointed in the short term, I hope that he is delighted in the medium to long term, as his work and that of others has had significant influence. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning wanted me to share those comments.

I want to consider the scale of the problem that we face. I do not know about other hon. Members, but yesterday, when my constituents were facing hurricane-strength winds and life was being endangered—tragically, 10 people lost their lives—I found it more than ironic, indeed sad, that the national media were debating a reality TV programme, however serious the issues that it raised. If there are still sceptics on climate change, I advise them to follow the advice of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and to look at the scientific evidence of rapid climate change, the role that human activity is playing in it, and the threat that it poses to our quality of our life. The evidence is now overwhelming.

The recent Stern review brought into sharp relief the need for urgent international action to prevent environmental catastrophe. It showed that taking action now is cheaper than waiting to deal with the impact of climate change. Today, not only scientific opinion but the British public at large overwhelmingly recognise the reality of climate change. Stern was clear: even though the UK is responsible for but a small share of global emissions—2 per cent., I think—we cannot afford to delay domestic action while we wait for an international consensus. We must also show world leadership.

The Government are committed to responding to that challenge both at home and abroad. Internationally, we will continue to push for the agreement of all countries to halt and then reverse greenhouse gas emissions. Domestically, our climate change Bill will enshrine in law our commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050. That is an ambitious but necessary target. Meeting it means looking hard at how we produce energy, how we use transport, how we harness technology, and how we use the planning system.

In the run-up to Christmas, on 13 December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government published a groundbreaking package of measures to tackle carbon emissions from new development and other measures to help secure sustainable development in our communities. We have called the package “Towards a zero carbon future” because that is where we need to be. Our proposals will make a substantial contribution to getting there, and quickly. Many commentators are calling this a “green package”. They are right, but the package also forms a key element of our desire to deliver better, more sustainable communities.

So what is this package? First, it includes the code for sustainable homes: a new national standard for application across England for sustainable design and construction of new homes. By integrating elements of this voluntary code into new homes and obtaining assessments against the code, developers will be able to obtain a star rating for any new home to demonstrate its environmental performance. That will provide valuable information to home buyers, and offer builders a tool with which to distinguish between themselves in sustainability terms.

Alongside the code, we have launched our consultation on the timetable for incorporation of the energy and carbon standards set out in the code in future building regulations. Our proposals, which are set out in “Building a Greener Future: Towards Zero Carbon Development”, constitute a framework of progressive changes to building regulations to achieve zero-carbon new homes by 2016. We believe that that will cut carbon emissions by about 7 million tonnes a year by 2050, which is equivalent to around 20 per cent. of housing emissions—or, to put it another way, more than the total amount of emissions from the eight largest English cities outside London.

Of course there will be benefits for those who live in such homes because the energy efficiency of those homes will be higher. They will be cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Money will be saved for families, and our planet will be helped through extensive use of renewable sources of electricity. There are already examples, such as Bow Zed, which demonstrate what a zero-carbon development can look like and how it can work for ordinary families.

To realise our goals, we propose the introduction of new standards in three steps. The first step, in 2010, will mean that homes must be built to the very highest energy-efficiency standards. The second and third steps, in 2013 and 2016, will require increasing use of renewable and low-carbon energy supplies. We recognise that there will be additional costs, but the staged introduction of the changes will give business time to adjust and, importantly, innovate, to drive them down. The Stern report demonstrated what the real costs would be if those steps were not taken, an important point made also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower. To help to stimulate the market, the Chancellor has announced that he will exempt zero-carbon homes from stamp duty.

We propose that these targets should apply only to homes at this stage, not to all buildings. We will be looking next at the best approach to reducing carbon emissions from the non-residential sector. We are also consulting on how to secure more water efficiency in new buildings. However, I want now to focus on the final part of the package, which is of most significance to the debate. I refer to the draft planning policy statement on planning and climate change, on which we are already consulting.

The PPS sets out how planning, in providing for the new homes, jobs and infrastructure needed by communities—I hope that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has noted the inclusion of infrastructure, because he has often lobbied and argued on the subject—should help to shape places that will have lower carbon emissions, and will be resilient to the climate change that I am afraid is now accepted as inevitable. It sets out a clear and challenging role for regional and local spatial strategies, which are the workhorses of the planning system. Those strategies are expected to help shape the framework for energy supply in their areas.

At local level, development plan documents prepared by local authorities will be expected to set policies on the provision of low-carbon and renewable sources of energy. Those policies will provide the platform necessary for securing and complementing the increasingly high levels of energy efficiency required by the building regulations.

We expect this provision to be “significant” , to reflect the full potential of local opportunities without undermining the new development needed in communities. In the interim period, before plans are adopted, we propose that planning authorities should require a standard of 10 per cent. That is the floor standard; we can expect much more.

The approach that we have set out reflects the important role of local government in leading, shaping and supporting regional and local strategies that help the move to low-carbon living. Appropriate technologies and their potential will, of course, vary from place to place. We believe that judgments on how new development should integrate with local potential, and the vision for securing and delivering that potential, should be local rather than national, and should form part of wider consideration of the infrastructure and services needed to secure sustainable communities.

We know that many local authorities want to move quickly to ensure that new development delivers higher environmental standards. The planning policy statement—PPS—encourages them to engage constructively and imaginatively with developers to secure the delivery of sustainable buildings, and recognises that there will be local circumstances that justify higher standards for particular developments.

As I thought I made clear, the Government oppose the Bill. We believe that the consultation that I have mentioned will enable there to be a better debate, and I have important points to make on Government initiatives.

As a member of the Select Committee, I would be delighted to hear at length about the Government’s proposals, but we are supposed to be debating the Bill at hand, which is an excellent green measure. The Minister is putting at risk the Government’s green credentials by talking it out in such a shameless fashion.

As the hon. Gentleman is an environmentalist, I had hoped that he would welcome what I am saying as an important step forward both for the environmental lobby and in addressing climate change on behalf of the country.

Where there are demonstrable and locally specific development opportunities for requiring higher levels of building performance, we propose that they should be set out in advance in a development plan document. One such opportunity could be where there is a significant local potential for major development to be delivered at higher levels of the code for sustainable homes. In considering and justifying any local approach, we would expect the local authority to have regard to a number of considerations, including whether the proposed approach is consistent with securing the expected supply and pace of housing development shown in the housing trajectory required by our planning for housing policies. We must ask ourselves whether we want local standards to undermine development viability and the housing needed in our communities.

The Minister has now been speaking for longer than the promoter of the Bill. Can we have the benefit of his eloquence in Committee, or is he attempting to strangle the Bill and deny adequate scrutiny, as has been suggested?

In fairness, the Government’s policy and the debate on this policy area require time, and it would be irresponsible of a Government who have problems with a private Member’s Bill not to oppose it and not to set out our alternative ways forward. I believe that the alternatives that we propose meet the policy objectives of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower, and I want to continue putting on the record the Government’s policies in this regard.

Through the PPS and the code for sustainable homes, and by setting a timetable for further strengthening of building regulations, the Government aim to have a set of policies that provides clarity on the framework for achieving zero-carbon development. That will provide greater certainty for the development industry and other related businesses, and support cost-effective solutions without over-regulating the sector.

It is important to be clear about the relationship between planning policies, which through development control regulate the location and siting of development, building regulations, which deal with conservation of fuel and power, health and safety, accessibility in buildings, and the code, which addresses sustainability in homes.

The intentions of my hon. Friend’s Bill echo our proposals. However, we are not convinced that the Bill as drafted would deliver the desired outcomes. That is not a criticism of my hon. Friend, but it is worth remembering that local planning authorities already have the ability to set requirements on renewable energy through their development plans. By indicating that local planning authorities may include such measures, the Bill could be seen as a step back from the statement made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning in June last year. That set out the Government’s expectation that local planning authorities should include policies in their development plans. That statement has been reinforced and developed in the PPS, which includes specific policy on the need to ensure that a significant proportion of energy supply is gained on-site and renewably, and/or from a decentralised renewable or low-carbon energy supply.

It being half past Two o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 23 February.