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My real fear is that those conditions will be used by some planning inspectors to overrule provision in some local development plans for challenging targets for renewables or other carbon reduction requirements. My even greater fear is that it will deter planning authorities from being as ambitious as they would like. I am also still concerned about the provision for off-site generation of green energy by a developer instead of the on-site generation stipulated in Merton. If that approach is chosen by developers, as I suspect it often will be, we will end up utilising renewables that would have been built anyway, so it does not, in the end, increase green energy capacity. That said, much in the PPS is good and I wish it well, but I do not accept that it obviates the need for this Bill to become law.

Underlying the resistance to this measure—and, indeed, the caveats in the PPS—is a fear of what councils will do if they are empowered in the way we want them to be. That fear is misplaced and wrong-headed. Councils will not want to deter economic development within their own boundaries, nor prevent the provision of new homes for their citizens. They will weigh up all the factors and set realistic and measured targets. We need reflect only on how things have worked out in green leader councils such as Merton, Woking, Croydon, Knowsley, Calderdale, Sefton, Norwich and many others that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks mentioned to see that this can be done—and done responsibly. Indeed, in making the case for my Bill last year, we asked DCLG officials to provide us with evidence of local authorities that had prevented progress by setting higher environmental standards. We are still waiting for those examples.

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I hope that this Bill receives its Second Reading today. Yes, it will need to be amended in Committee to address Government concerns, but I am sure that it can provide a useful weapon in combating climate change. We should not reject it.

9.57 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): It is a pleasure to speak in favour of the Bill. The House is rightly focused on the issues of climate change and planning, which is exactly what the Bill does in highlighting those two critical issues.

I welcome the three main objectives set out in the Bill. Hon. Members will have noticed that clause 1 states that a local planning authority

going on to list the three areas in which it applies. I emphasise the word “may”, which means that the Bill is not prescriptive, but provides local authorities with the flexibility they need to implement policies that are appropriate to their areas. Broadly speaking, we are all supportive of that and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has repeatedly stated the importance of allowing local authorities to take their own decisions.

The hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), who ran with the issue before—I hope that this Bill receives more success—said that the Bill makes nobody do anything. Normally, I would object to that in principle, but in this case it is entirely right, as the Bill provides flexibility to local authorities. The Bill sets out the powers that a local authority would have to specify the generation of energy from renewable sources, the generation of low-carbon energy and an appropriate and more challenging energy efficiency standard for any proposed development in its area.

The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) rightly indicated that the Bill might require refinement, as is often the case with private Members’ Bills. Regrettably, Back-Bench Members do not have the same level of resource as Ministers when they prepare Bills. This process should provide the opportunity to refine the Bill if the Minister feels that it is not as precise as it should be.

All Members will appreciate why the Bill is needed. Since 1997, CO2 emissions have gone up. Far from tackling what is, in the words of the Government’s chief scientific adviser, the “biggest challenge we face”—a real global threat—we have seen CO2 emissions rising. The Bill would help in that respect.

The Bill would also counter the potential impact of the Planning Bill. I do not know how closely Members have been following that Bill, but part of it would set up the infrastructure planning commission. If the Government get their way, the IPC will authorise up to 50 large-scale infrastructure projects a year. There is a real concern that the safeguards in that Bill in relation to environmental issues are weak. The IPC might allow through a raft of significant developments such as nuclear power stations or airports, which will have a very negative impact on climate change. This Bill will counterbalance that by tackling CO2 emissions in local developments.

This Bill will also help the Government face the very tough task of meeting the targets set by the European Union. Other Members will have looked at the research
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paper helpfully produced by the Library, and will be as familiar as I am with the table on page 10 setting out the UK’s achievement in generating electricity from renewable energy in comparison with other EU countries. I am afraid to say that the UK performs very badly. A few countries are doing worse than we are—Malta, which has no figures, Estonia, Belgium and Poland. But the list of countries doing better than the UK includes the Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Sweden and Austria. The UK is performing exceedingly poorly in providing more electricity from renewable sources.

The Bill is also necessary because it allows local authorities to introduce tougher energy efficiency standards. Again, our performance in that regard is, I am afraid, pathetic. Members are probably sick to death of references to BedZED, a zero-energy development in my constituency. Its first occupiers moved in four years ago, but it is still an exemplar of its type. All aspects of the development, from using recycled materials in its construction, through to triple glazing and the highest energy efficiency standards, with green roofs and so on, minimise energy use. I remember BioRegional, the developers, coming to my surgery nearly nine years ago, and yet the UK has made little progress since then.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that the evidence from the continent, particularly Germany, is that when large numbers of new homes with microgeneration and substantial energy efficiency measures are built, the cost comes down dramatically? The Government should therefore be far more resistant to the lobbying calls of the big house builders, and far more open to a substantial increase in such build, so that we can get the economies of scale and the energy savings that would offset the extra building costs.

Tom Brake: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s comments. More imagination is also required to allow certain smaller schemes to go ahead. Russell Smith, a constituent of mine, gutted his brick-built semi-detached property, which is typical of the UK housing stock that will be with us probably for the next 50, 60 or 70 years, and installed a range of insulation measures, panels and so on to demonstrate how a property of the type that most people live in could be transformed suitably into an energy-efficient dwelling. He was frustrated in his attempt to get permission to install a small combined heat and power plant, and ended up having to give up on that, as it proved too complex. We need to look at what is happening abroad and ensure that we are more flexible in our approach.

It is a regret not that the Merton rule exists but that it is called the Merton rule. It is significant that one local authority in the UK has given us the name Merton rule as a way of describing local authorities that are taking the lead environmentally. I doubt very much whether Germany has something called the Munich rule or the Hamburg rule, because all local authorities there are involved, and there is no need to point to one local authority that is way in advance of all the others.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but is it not encouraging that so many other councils in the country are adopting the Merton rule—well
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over 100? Does that not provide further evidence of support among the local authority community for the Bill that we are debating?

Tom Brake: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Many other local authorities are following Merton’s lead and taking the lead in other respects in relation to the environment. Many of those authorities, whether Merton or my local authority, Sutton, which is the neighbouring borough to Merton, have been mentioned today. It is still significant, however, that we often think of individual authorities taking the lead. In many respects, the energy efficiency standards or building regulations are deficient or at least not challenging enough.

The Bill addresses energy efficiency standards and clears up the uncertainty that surrounds the Merton rule. In response to a number of questions and interventions, DCLG Ministers have given assurances that there is no threat to the Merton rule. The experience on the ground, however, is that some local authorities find it difficult, or are reluctant to use it, to provide the level of renewable energy provided in Merton.

I do not want to detain the House any longer. I want to see the Bill proceed. It is a short Bill that would make a huge difference to the UK’s ability to tackle CO2 emissions and climate change, and I hope that it will receive its Second Reading today.

10.9 am

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): It is customary to congratulate the Member who wins the ballot. I have always wondered why we do that—I would rather have won the ballot myself—but I do congratulate the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) on choosing this topic. I was happy to lend my name to this brief, modest and reasonable Bill.

The Bill calls for a bit of reverse engineering in our approach to tackling the challenge of climate change, rather than leaving everything to top-down targets without thinking about the mechanisms that are needed on the ground floor. The very first word—“enable”—is probably the most important. The Bill is intended not to tell, not to spend, not to force, but to enable. It contains another word that I hesitate to mention, the word “reasonable”. I know that we can spend hours, weeks and years in this place debating what it means to be reasonable, and I hope we will not get into the semantics now, but I think that the intention in this instance is more than clear.

We sometimes underestimate the hugeness of the challenge of climate change to our politics, our public institutions, to private business and to our personal behaviour. It covers the waterfront. Ipsos MORI recently published a review of the year which I think was sent to Members, although I was not able to lay hands on it yesterday. One of the centre-spreads featured attitudes to climate change. The general conclusion was that people in Britain now accept that there is a problem and accept that human behaviour is making a difference, which was not the case five or 10 years ago. When it comes to dealing with the problem, however, a gulf emerges. The survey exposed the fact that apart from doing a little bit of, dare I say,
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recycling—perhaps changing light bulbs—most of us are “armchair environmentalists”. We demand that the Government do something rather than doing anything ourselves, while issuing the caveat that whatever the Government propose we will oppose, and thus we make no progress whatever. The purpose of the Bill is not to focus on the great big problem and leave it nebulous, or to ask the Government to do everything, but to concentrate on what local government can do and enable it to build in the capacity to meet its targets.

I approved of what the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said in his intervention. We ought to acknowledge that local authorities are getting ahead of the Government on this issue, and engage in a stronger dialogue with them about what they can achieve at ground-floor and local-community level. The aim of the Merton rule, which has been widely known and accepted for more than four years and has been copied by over 100 local authorities, is to persuade developers to obtain at least 10 per cent. of any new building energy from renewable sources.

I know about the BedZED project, but there are quite a few other projects scattered across Britain. There are combined heat and power and energy-efficiency projects, and experimental schemes initiated by architects going all the way back to Susan Rolfe’s experimental house with solar panels in Oxford. Such development is patchy, however. The Bill is intended to achieve some co-ordination so that best practice can be shared, and authorities can learn about what is going on elsewhere and proceed in a positive fashion.

Tom Brake: The Bill also allows for much more trials. Even in the case of BedZED, things often do not work quite as one would like because they have not been tried before.

John Battle: I jotted down a phrase that the hon. Gentleman used earlier. He said that what was needed was more imagination, political and practical. We also need to take more cognisance of developments in science and technology, and experiment a bit more. It might mean failing some of the time, but we might also achieve our aims more quickly. The 10 per cent. target will be hard to achieve without co-ordinated action on the part of all local authorities.

The Bill’s purpose is to enable all local authorities to set renewable and low-energy targets for new developments. That could apply not just to individual buildings, but to complexes. Without the Bill, I can envisage the game being played in the opposite way. Without a mandate to get on with meeting the 10 per cent. target, it could be challenged by people who would say “We will hold up the planning process because you are trying to suggest that we do something that we know we do not have to do.” The whole process could be stalled and blocked by authorities pulling us in the opposite direction from the best-practice councils gathered around Merton.

Let me pursue the point made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) about imagination. When I was Minister for Energy and Industry between 1997 and 1999, we published a report on renewable energy. It did not quite catch the zeitgeist—I
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am pleased that we have moved on in the past 10 years—but at the time I went to Northumberland to see a project on a council estate consisting of about 3,000 houses. The developers had adopted almost a traditional village-green approach: using brilliant engineering and science, they had managed to blend in a complex of renewable microgeneration in the centre of the estate, using energy from waste, wind power and biomass. Rather than depending on a wind farm, which would produce nothing when the wind did not blow, they were able to “cross-reference” energy sources.

That approach has not been considered more widely. In general, people are opting for single-issue solutions. Given that there is no single source of energy that could be described as perfectly pure and green, why not blend sources together and create new possibilities like the developers of that estate in Northumberland, which was kept warm by a complex of renewable energy sources?

Hospital waste cannot be buried. I had a furious row with some “deep greens” who said “We cannot burn hospital waste.” Well, hospital waste must be burnt, but why not install a combined-heat-and-power station in the hospital and use energy from the waste to heat it? That has already been done at St James’s University hospital in my city. We need more imaginative application at local level if we are to get anywhere near our targets.

It has been said that the Bill is about individual buildings. I think back to that community in the north-east, because in my view the Bill should be about communities. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) mentioned cost. In Leeds there are still rows and rows of terraced houses—classic terraced streets with washing hanging across them—but their ownership is mixed. A terraced house there could be owner-occupied, owned by a landlord, or a council miscellaneous property. In the past, if new roofs were needed it was not a case of putting a roof on one house, leaving a gap because a roof could not be afforded for the next house, putting on another roof, leaving another couple of gaps, putting on another roof and so on all along the terrace. There was a scheme enabling the whole terrace to be repaired—roofs, doors and windows. It was called “enveloping”.

The same system could be applied to renewable energy, including solar energy for heating water. I know that January has not been a brilliant month for sunshine, but although most people do not realise it, what is needed for solar energy is not bright sunshine but light in general. We could improve whole communities and rebuild neighbourhoods: we could build renewable energy into neighbourhoods.

I am still thinking in terms of imagination. A report published by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and Ofgem suggests that we should view the distribution of energy in Britain very differently. We should not think of the system as a grid, although it is one at present. How can we build microgeneration into it? We might not need buried cables and power lines stretching across the country in future; instead, the system could function at micro level. The Government have already made good progress, after great argument, to enable the electricity that is generated but not needed in a local community to be passed back to others through the grid.

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Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is talking a great deal of sense and he will find a lot of support for what he is saying from Conservative Members. His comments are all the more important because he speaks from experience as a former Minister. Has he had the opportunity to read “Power to the People”, the Conservative policy document on microgeneration, which encapsulates much of what he says and puts some flesh on the bones of how we might achieve our aims?

John Battle: I will be delighted to read anything that the Conservatives publish. I cannot say that I have read the document but if the hon. Gentleman sends me a copy, I assure him that I will read it. It is amazing to hear the Conservatives speaking of “Power to the People”. I sat on the Opposition Benches for 10 years and usually heard the opposite. However, this is not the occasion to become deeply divided politically about who is and who is not on the side of the people.

Chris Huhne: To support the right hon. Gentleman’s point about microgeneration, does he agree that the more we decentralise and devolve sources of energy, the more resilient we are likely to be in coping both with natural disasters of the sort that we saw in his county of Yorkshire last summer and with terrorist outrages? We would have a portfolio of different energy sources, none of which we would be reliant on in the totality.

John Battle: I agree but perhaps the hon. Gentleman’s background motive—this also applies to the response I gave to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker)—relates to the fact that the term “Power to the People” means engaging people so that they can be involved in formulating, building and owning the solutions to their problems. They therefore take some form of ownership. What do I mean by that? I mean that people and communities become personally engaged in microgeneration. I do not want them to do that because they fear that supplies through the gas pipeline may be cut off by the Russians; I want microgeneration to be seen as part of community building. Energy generation and waste management will have to take place in local communities and we will have to take more personal and community responsibility in the future.

One of the hallmarks of our culture is that we all watch “Neighbours” in our homes with the door shut. We know everything about Ramsay street in Australia, but no one here has a clue who lives in the flat above them or in the street alongside. What we do in neighbourhoods may play a part in rebuilding and refabricating new communities, and the energy and waste management issues will be key to that. However, let us look at that in the positive terms of building relationships and new systems rather than through acting out of fear.

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