Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-214)

RT HON STEPHEN BYERS, MP AND DR ALAN WHITEHEAD, MP

THURSDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2001

  200. Briefly, yes.
  (Dr Whitehead) The Department has an integrated appraisal framework which effectively applies indicators concerning social, environmental and economic issues to any particular bid the Department is putting forward. So the Treasury has asked for an indication of the sustainability in terms of any bid the Department is putting forward, and the integrated appraisal framework will be designed to provide precisely that indication for a bid which goes in. In that respect, DTLR is very much in the vanguard as far as that process is concerned.

  201. I was interested in what you said in your memorandum about the integrated appraisal process. Is that the same as an environmental assessment or is it larger because it obviously takes into account social and economic factors as well?
  (Dr Whitehead) It is essentially a sustainability framework within which a bid will be looked at. As far as sustainability is concerned, that is obviously an issue—

  202. It is quite separate from an environmental assessment?
  (Dr Whitehead) It is in a sense larger than a straightforward environmental assessment in that it does take into account a number of factors which work against each other and which also include things like social inclusion and other factors which add to the idea of sustainability in the round.

Mr Gerrard

  203. Could I follow on that question of the integrated appraisal. I think in previous evidence we have been told you needed to do further work to have greater consistency and a greater number of appraisals, in particular dealing with policies where the main objective is not something which is overtly environmental. Can you tell us where you are on that one?
  (Dr Whitehead) I think we are well advanced in terms of applying a systematic process to all 2002 bids which are going in from the Department. What I would emphasise is that that systematic process by which those bids are looked at does not particularly distinguish between whether a bid is overtly environmental or concerns other aspects of the Department's work. The reason for that is that the aim of the bidding process the Department is putting into Treasury is to try and ensure there is a consistent view of sustainability within all bids, so a constant framework is being applied to each bid so the same range of issues are being applied to see whether those bids have a sustainability impact, and if and when they do how that is assessed as far as a bid is concerned so when it comes in front of the Treasury it actually accords with their request that that is precisely the sort of information which is in front of them so they can make comparable judgments.

  204. You will be putting a sustainable development report to the Treasury, is that something which will remain private or is that something which might be available once the bids have finished? How regularly are there reports within the Department to you as Green Minister?
  (Dr Whitehead) The reports which come to me as Green Minister are regular. I have already held with the sustainability team within the Department, for example, two substantial meetings with agenda headings and rolling reports on matters of sustainability in the Department, and that will be something which will be a regular feature of what I do as Green Minister. Now that will have a particular impact in the near future as far as the Spending Review 2002 is concerned but it is not confined to that, it is a regular basis of reporting to me on the progress of sustainability both in terms of the internal policies of the Department, ie green housekeeping, and the wider issue of how the policies are rolling out from a sustainability point of view outside the Department.

  205. What about that report which goes to the Treasury along with the Spending Review? Is that something which is going to be available? Obviously we would be interested not just in the report for your Department but others as well.
  (Mr Byers) It is not something which normally would be made available, but if I can investigate and see what might be possible, I would like to be helpful to the Committee. Let me see if it is something we could put before the Committee.

Chairman

  206. Thank you, that is helpful. Just going back to the environmental appraisal, as you know, this Committee has been critical in the past of the comprehensiveness of the environmental appraisal which has accompanied major policy changes or major policy pronouncements. Is this something which you are paying more attention to now, the environmental appraisal as such?
  (Dr Whitehead) Yes. What I have attempted to emphasise is that the development of policy by the Department will have as one of its elements a fairly constant nature of environmental and sustainability appraisal. Therefore the policy itself, as it were, will go through that process prior to it being signed off by the Department. Among other things, that does mean that the policy will be measured in terms of how it integrates with other policies within the Department so that the joint impact on sustainability and environmental impact can be measured, and the particular instrument we have developed as far as measuring our bids for SR2002 is concerned is actually an instrument which has a wider impact on the longer term across the Department as a whole. It is a process by which departmental policy as a whole can be measured.

  207. Again that is something which I know the guidance suggests the Departments should be encouraged to publish if they think it is sensible to do so in particular cases. Will you do that? The environmental appraisals which might have policy changes?
  (Dr Whitehead) Again, Chairman, I think that is something which I would like to communicate with you further on in terms of how the general guidance we are working to can be supplied to you.

Mr Francois

  208. At the Greenpeace Business Conference in October last year, I think you mentioned the phrase, "the Government was at the cutting edge of the green industrial revolution and that is where you wanted to be." How are you going to bring forward this commitment, given your new responsibilities? What measures has the DTLR taken over the last year to promote this particular aim and how has such progress been monitored and measured?
  (Mr Byers) The green industrial revolution was the comment I made when I was Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, and I think probably the responsibilities of that Department lend themselves more readily to promoting that within the industries which the Department sponsors—and the Department of Trade & Industry sponsors industry—and there were a number of areas of innovation where we could support financially developments and research. Obviously the Department had a responsibility for energy, and there was aa major area there to do with greening wind power and so on. In terms of the areas I have responsibility for now, there is one big area where we do need to look very carefully at how we can support the greening of an industry. I have responsibility for the aviation industry and that is one area where I know the airlines themselves are acutely aware of the importance of being far more environmentally friendly than they have in the past. They are already taking some very good and positive measures in relation to noise, reducing the level of noise from aeroplanes, and in terms of trying to be more efficient in terms of the consumption of fuel. So that is the part of the agenda I am probably now more engaged in as far as industry is concerned. But in terms of the other areas of responsibility, when one looks at housing and planning, there are great opportunities there to make sure the whole sustainable development agenda is given a higher prior than it may have at the moment.

  209. Two points which follow from what you have said. Firstly, the Sustainable Development Unit can now perhaps have more of a rural focus because it is in DEFRA, do you think there is a case for a creation of a sort of mini-SDU within the DTLR itself?
  (Mr Byers) We have a small team, and it is a very small team at the moment, dealing with sustainable development, and they are a dedicated team to that, but there are only two of them, so I do not want to exaggerate the number but we do intend to expand it in the next few months because I believe it is important we have a team which has this area of responsibility. We also have a member of the board of DTLR who has responsibility for sustainable development as well. So we are building it into the new Department.

  210. You mention sustainable development planning, can I ask a question which I hazard a guess is close to all of our hearts, when looking at this review of planning is there any chance at all there are going to be any changes in the way you address planning issues surrounding the siting of mobile phone masts?
  (Mr Byers) As the Committee will know, this is an issue which the Government has considered in some detail. We have had very helpful reports on it. The reports we have received are very clear that there is no proven evidence of health risks from mobile phone masts, and we have given very clear guidance to planning authorities as to how they should deal with these matters. Personally, I think we are now in a better position in terms of a recognition of the powers that planning authorities have than perhaps was the case a year or two ago, when it was all rather confused as to what powers a planning authority had. I hope we have been able to clarify that. A planning committee, a planning authority, can on planning grounds refuse an application if they feel it is appropriate to do so in the circumstances.

Mr Barker

  211. The Stewart Report, to which you alluded, did make it very clear in the view of their expert group that children and other high risk categories, such as pensioners and those with certain types of illness, were at greater risk from electromagnetic fields and other types of radiation, and as a result recommended that planning permission be able to take into account the health risks. Your colleague, Sally Keeble, yesterday in Committee was somewhat unclear—and I do not mean to do her an injustice—as to whether or not councils had the right under planning permission laws to turn down an application on health grounds. She seemed to infer that they could, but that again contradicted previous statements from Nick Raynsford in 2000 in a letter to councils. Can you be clear, given the health concerns surrounding the siting of masts, can a council turn down a planning application on that basis?
  (Mr Byers) I am not sure I recognise your interpretation of the Stewart Report.

  212. I do not have the quote verbatim but I did not quote it yesterday.
  (Mr Byers) Perhaps we can look back at the record and discover the quote, but it is probably easier if we look back at the Stewart Report and get the context in which it was set.

  213. Certainly.
  (Mr Byers) The position as I understand it is clear, and I will confirm this in writing to help the Committee, the guidance we have given is that there is no reason why solely on health grounds an application should be refused but there could well be planning reasons, not health reasons, why a refusal would be appropriate under a normal planning regime. That is my recollection of the guidance. It was given before I came into this Department but I think that is the case. I will write to the Committee to make sure it is there in black and white so you have the official version, but that is my recollection of the policy.

Chairman

  214. Thank you very much indeed, Secretary of State. It was a useful session, we have covered a lot of ground in some considerable detail.
  (Mr Byers) As we always do, Chairman.

  Chairman: As we always do. Thank you.


 
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