Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Cawsey.]

2:30 pm
Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

It is good to see you, Mr. Hancock, in the Chair today. This debate has been overshadowed by the dreadful events in central London today and I know that the whole House is united in our thoughts for the people who have been killed or injured and their family and friends. I am pleased that several Members are here for this debate.

Sustainable development is an important issue. It must underpin the Government's policies and we must have an effective strategy for it. I am glad that the strategy that the Government launched on 7 March, "Securing the Future", and the attention and high priority that the Government have given to sustainable development were widely and warmly welcomed. The strategy was launched by the Prime Minister and the launch was attended by Ministers from various Departments, which publicly illustrated the fact that sustainable development is a matter for the whole Government, not for any one Department or just for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

At the heart of the new strategy are five guiding principles on sustainable development: first, ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; secondly, living within environmental limits; thirdly, achieving a sustainable economy; fourthly, promoting good governance; and finally, using sound science in a responsible way.

This is not the first UK sustainable development strategy. It builds on previous strategies that were launched in 1994 and 1999, but there is a great deal in it that is new. It reflects the views and opinions of many people who responded during the public consultation. The whole idea of the strategy was to involve the public—to get their ideas and views—and it was a useful exercise.

The strategy places an emphasis on the need for co-operation between government and wider society to promote sustainable choices. In practice, sustainable development comes down to the numerous, everyday choices about how we live and work. It is an issue for all of us individually as well as collectively.

Achieving sustainable development will depend largely on long-term changes in the behaviour of the stakeholders who were involved in the consultation, individuals, communities, businesses and the public sector. We all have a part to play in fostering greener and more sustainable choices while continuing to support a stable economy. Of course, there are challenges. Unfortunately, unsustainable patterns of behaviour are all too often the norm, despite many dedicated individuals and groups showing what might be achieved. We all know about that from trying to encourage people to use public transport, to recycle waste or to use less energy. Many unsustainable habits are embedded in our normal patterns of behaviour, and that is a challenge for us.

That is why the strategy emphasises the need to understand more about the social and cultural influences that shape our consumption. We will look for ways to enable behaviour changes that are focused and meaningful to our audience. I draw the attention of the House to our proposal to establish a new service called Environment Direct. The idea is to provide consumers with information about the choices that they can make when purchasing and using products, to enable them to minimise the environmental impact. That will be predominantly a web-based service. We are in the process of putting that together now.

It is also important that the Government lead by example and encourage the public, business, and the rest of the world to follow us in making long-term choices for the good of the planet. We must do that in our policies, but also in our practice. The public sector in this country spends more than 125 billion per year. That represents an enormous influence for furthering sustainable development, new innovation, new companies and new ways of looking at whole-life assessments.

We are beginning to use the absolutely crucial tool of sustainable purchasing, but we can develop it much more. I am pleased to say that we have established a sustainable procurement taskforce, which will produce an action plan in April 2006 setting out how the public sector can embed sustainable development in procurement. We have demonstrated, with our policies on procuring sustainable timber, for example, how the whole market can change and what influence that can have. That has been enormously successful in changing attitudes and behaviour, and in assisting work with developing countries to promote sustainable logging.

During our presidency of the EU one of our priorities will be to lead work on promoting sustainable—or "green coloured"—procurement throughout Europe. In October we will host a workshop with representatives from all member states to discuss how to improve environmental performance in public procurement across the EU. As part of that we want to establish an EU-wide benchmark, so that the average performance in 2010 will match that of today's best-performing states.

Public procurement is also a focus of the European environmental technologies action plan, which sets out a range of actions to stimulate innovation and new business opportunities. That is important because success, both here and in Europe, depends on businesses fulfilling the growing consumer expectations of higher environmental and ethical standards, and on cutting out the negative impacts of growing material resource consumption. New materials, energy technologies and innovative product design will be a crucial part of that.

The strategy sets out a challenge to all of us in the UK to live more sustainably, and to choose healthier and happier lives. However, we know that making difficult choices today for a better tomorrow is often hard. Our Together We Can action plan, which was launched on 28 June—and which, again, is a cross-departmental initiative—describes how communities can work with the Government to secure the future. That will be supported by programmes to encourage communities to save energy, recycle, play their part in tackling climate change, improve local neighbourhoods, support healthy eating and exercise, and promote a range of other sustainable development issues.

The strategy also recognises that there is a need to improve the local environment in our most deprived communities. Some 56 per cent. of local environments in England in 2003–04 were described as unsatisfactory or poor. That has improved by 12 per cent. since 2001, but the figure remains unsatisfactory and we have a long way to go.

There is also an issue of social justice, because people in our most deprived areas generally have the worst local environments, with vandalism experienced by 27.9 per cent. of households in deprived areas, as compared with only 6.6 per cent. elsewhere. Air quality is often poorer and residents in deprived areas are much less satisfied with refuse collection services than the average population. Two London studies suggest that poorer households are also less able to access recycling services.

We want to make England cleaner, safer, greener and healthier. I am pleased that recycling rates are increasing, and we recently granted new powers to local authorities to tackle those issues under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005. We have also provided programmes of funding, support and guidance on such matters with "Living Spaces" and the "How to" guides. For the future, we want to provide everyone with much better information about the quality of the local environment in their area through data on their doorstep to encourage and inspire communities to act.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour)

In passing, as my hon. Friend is talking about the UK sustainable development strategy, I hope that it is not only England that we make greener. Much of Scotland is green enough thanks to the generous rainfall, but it is important to emphasise that the strategy is a UK strategy, allowing for the devolved interest.

Will my hon. Friend say a bit more about Environment Direct and how it will relate to the other initiatives that have been launched to encourage people to choose a more sustainable way forward in their personal lives? It is important that there should be as much publicity as possible of the various sources of information available and that they should be as clear as possible, to maximise the opportunity that exists.

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

Environment Direct is linked with a range of Government strategies. I mentioned the "How to" guides, for example. There could be a link between Environment Direct and "How to". It will also link in with the 12 million budget that we have for a promotion later this year on climate change, what it means and what contribution individuals can make. Incidentally, that 12 million is not just for an advertising promotion, although that will be part of it because it is important; it will also be about funding local groups and trying to give some support at grass roots level to groups that are working in communities to promote energy reduction and insulation, and offer advice.

The advantage of Environment Direct is that there will be information for people and consumers who want to make informed choices. For example, the latest washing machines and dishwashers use a fraction of the electricity and water used by those made not very long ago. In fact, they are now graded from A to F in relation to energy use. That is an important step forward in terms of consumer information. It has completely changed the white goods sector because no manufacturer wants to put anything on the market that has not got an A rating. People look for the A rating. There is even a new rating of A plus, which goes beyond the A rating. I am glad to say that the washing machine that I bought recently has that rating.

Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

The Minister will remember the parliamentary questions that I have asked about TVs and other goods on stand-by, which he was kind enough to give reasonably full answers to. Does he agree that it is a deplorable waste of energy to have goods churning out carbon emissions for no good purpose? Would it not be better if, through EU legislation, manufacturers were prevented from having a stand-by mode and people had to choose that kind of function themselves, rather than having it automatically as a default?

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

I agree. I am glad to tell the hon. Gentleman that I recently launched the new eco-standard directive, which has come from the European Union. It sets new design standards and the first phase focuses on energy consumption and, in particular, the stand-by mode. Even as things stand, there is a huge difference in power consumption between different models of television, for example. Some TVs use 80 per cent. of their normal running power in stand-by mode. That is an incredible amount of energy. The more modern TVs use a fraction of that. The eco-standard sets new standards of design. Initially, it will be voluntary, although the Commission is obliged to bring forward at least one compulsory standard in two years. So, we will see that happen.

There is growing awareness of the waste of energy involved in things such as stand-by mode and how the design of electrical equipment can make a huge difference. Even though the first phase is voluntary, it is a challenge to manufacturers. If they do not respond to the new standard, it will inevitably be followed by compulsory standards. I hope that we will see those changes in the near future.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the information that he has provided. May I just clarify one point? Will the 12 million for the climate change programme be available for activities throughout the UK, or is it restricted to England or England and Wales?

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

If my memory serves me right, I think that this is a UK programme—[Interruption.] Yes, I am pleased to say that my memory does serve me right.

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

It was just coming to me, Mr. Hancock. I was racking my brains. With devolution, we expect the devolved Administrations to bring forward their own action programmes in relation to their own priorities.

Sustainable development also means being able to go from local to global. For the first time, the strategy has integrated our national policy goals with our international policy goals. I have just given some examples in relation to climate change. We need to tackle the whole issue of greenhouse gas emissions. We have a high awareness of the issue in this country. The focus of the G8 and the EU presidencies has been helpful in that respect.

I am glad to say that we also have political agreement in this country that there is a need for action. The only argument is about how fast we are going and who has done more than others in the past, but that is not a bad position to be in compared with many other countries. The consensus for action in this country is important and will help us achieve the ambitious domestic goals that we have set. We are well on track for Kyoto and have already achieved our target, but we want to do more than that. We recognise that Kyoto is but the first step in the process, not the end.

Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

At the risk of trying the Minister's patience, can he be encouraged to answer this question a third time? There is consensus in this country about the science and the need for action, which is welcomed by all parties. However, there is no consensus in the G8, which is wrestling with that subject today. I am sure that the Prime Minister has been doing his best in Gleneagles, despite the difficult circumstances that we all face.

Does the Minister recognise that there may be a choice—I hope that there is not and I understand his position and desire—between a meaningful post-Kyoto process through the coalition of the willing and a meaningless piece of paper that the Americans consent to sign up to? I hope, as he does, that we can avoid that. If we cannot, are the Government in favour of the former or the latter?

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

That is a false choice. It does not exist. We can move forward on a multi-track basis and nothing will come out of Gleneagles that will alter our commitment to the United Nations forum on climate change or to our domestic targets, which go much further than the Kyoto agreements.

We seek to reach an agreement with countries such as the United States. That is important. Whatever agreement we seek, I am confident that it will be meaningful. I said in DEFRA questions that there is not the slightest chance that the UK will sign up to a meaningless agreement. I hope and believe that there is every possibility that we will be able to move forward on the subject of our contact with the United States and, incidentally, on the subject of our contact, co-operation and collaboration with countries such as China and India, that are also part of the G8 process. That does not mean that we will have to go in one direction or the other, but that we should follow all tracks. We should look for co-operation at all levels. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would encourage that.

We will see co-operation and progress coming out of Gleneagles. I am not in a position to say so for certain—I do not think that the final agreements have been drafted and I am sure that negotiations will go on right to the end—but I believe that the G8 will address climate change and will not undermine our commitments. It is a question, not of choosing one or the other, but of a multi-track approach.

Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

Is it not a fact, however, that whatever agreement is reached at the G8 meeting, we cannot and should not set aside the post-Kyoto process through the conference of the parties? Whatever happens this week might be superseded or enhanced by an agreement in Montreal at the end of November. That is the formal legal process for implementing Kyoto and moving beyond it.

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we will not see and would not expect targets to come out of Gleneagles. Targets should be negotiated through the meeting of the parties in the Montreal conference.

I hope that we will see some thinking about post-2012 coming out of Gleneagles. I repeat that Kyoto is the start of the process and we have to turn our minds to post-2012. We have to think about how we will take that forward at the Montreal conference. The discussions from Gleneagles may play an important part in that, but Gleneagles is not a process for short-circuiting the international process of the United Nations. That is where such discussions should take place, as my hon. Friend rightly states, and where agreements should be made.

We want to develop a dialogue on climate change, clean energy and sustainable development that will complement the UN process. We are well aware that that will not be easy and that there are differences of opinion. From what I have seen already, the statements from President Bush on accepting the science and that there is a problem have gone far beyond what he has said publicly to date. That may not seem much to us in this country where we have long accepted those principles, but given the resistance that still exists in the United States and the vested interests there, it is a welcome step forward in itself. I hope that we shall see more than that, but we should not underestimate that step forward in recognising the priorities.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Assistant Chief Whip, Whips; Cotswold, Conservative)

To make a factual correction, I think that the process began not at Kyoto, but in Rio some years before. On biofuels—I declare an interest in the matter—oilseed rape and cereals are being exported to other countries in the EU to be made into biofuel, which is then re-imported into this country. That is crazy. The experts have told me that the problem is not simply the amount of tax rebate on biofuels, but the lack of long-term commitment. If they had a commitment of three to five years of the present tax regime, they would be encouraged to invest. There are active plans for a plant in the south-west, if they could have that long-term commitment. Will the Minister consider the matter seriously?

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

That is a serious issue and I accept that the discussion process started in Johannesburg, although the framework to which people refer started in Kyoto. There is no disagreement on that point.

On biofuels, I was talking to investors in a new biofuel plant that is being built on Teesside. Another is being built in Scotland. Investors in this country are interested and I agree that a biofuel sector is important to climate change. It also offers benefits to farmers in this country and we should not underestimate that.

The climate change review is taking place and we will publicise the results. It is designed to guide Government strategy to help us meet our 2010 target, and biofuels are part of that review. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. The duty rebate is but one measure that can be applied to biofuels. There are others.

We want to look at the whole issue of bio-energy and the supply chain. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Sir Ben Gill has been tasked with producing a report on how we can develop a biofuel industry in this country. We have also made funding available to develop the supply chain for biofuels. We are committed and I hope that we can take that further.

This year, key meetings are taking place on sustainability. Gleneagles is an important meeting and I hope that it has a good outcome. There are also high level dialogues with China, India and Brazil in the EU summits with those countries. There is the Doha development agenda and the World Trade Organisation meeting in Hong Kong, which is important for trade. There is continued need for reform of common agricultural policy schemes, such as the sugar regime, which will come under the UK presidency. We want better regulations—the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals proposals—and to review the EU's sustainable development strategies.

Again, as part of our presidency and within the climate change agenda we want to include aviation in the second phase of the European trading scheme and we believe that there is considerable support for that. There are time issues and we will not be able to achieve completion within six months, but we can bring the matter forward and start the process of including aviation.

The Montreal conference on the UN framework convention on climate change is coming up and the UK will lead the EU at that conference and chair the co-ordination meetings. I hope that we can play our role in taking the process forward within the UNFCCC agenda.

We will publish the climate change review towards the end of the year, and it will address many of the points that hon. Members have made. Work is ongoing on the energy efficiency innovation review, and the revised climate change review timetable fits quite well with that.

I have one final point, which is quite topical. I am glad to say that sustainability was a big feature of the successful bid for the London Olympics, and I had some input in that respect. The bid and the design are based on using recycled materials and water, on having a zero-carbon impact in terms of development and on green space. All of that will contribute to the legacy, which is also a strong part of the London bid, and I believe that that legacy will be sustainable for the future.

I am pleased not only about the success of our Olympic bid, but about the priority that sustainable design was given in our bid programme. I very much look forward to sustainable design being incorporated in the new stadium, the new Olympic village and the new housing that will be built in the area for the future. In terms of sustainability, that will be a very good legacy for a very long time to come.

2:56 pm
Photo of John Hayes

John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Transport; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

I am delighted to respond to this important debate on behalf of the official Opposition. Sustainability has become something of a watchword. Every political speech needs to mention it to gain any degree of validity. Defining it, however, is altogether more difficult because it is used rather loosely, so I hope that the debate can help us clarify what we mean by it.

It is right that we should recognise that sustainable development and sustainable models for production and consumption are essential if we are to respect our environment while allowing for improvement and development. If Britain is to play a prominent role in changing the models of production and consumption in the way that the Minister described—particularly during our chairmanship of the G8 and the EU—we must provide more than just talk.

As I said, it seems that sustainability must be in any speech if that speech is to be recognised as relevant, and I am afraid that there is also a tendency in government to bolt the term on to every policy, as though that alone makes the policy more persuasive and deliverable. Although much of the debate is not about partisan matters, it is important that we hold the Government to account on whether they are delivering on their fine words and great promises. Words and targets might sound impressive, but the Government cannot tackle the problems without introducing a range of deliverables on which they can be tested.

Let me start what I hope will be a thorough exposure of the weaknesses of the Government's position by dealing with their policy on housing. They champion that policy—I shall deal with it in greater detail during my speech—on the grounds that it is about the development of sustainable communities. In practice, it is neither sustainable, nor about communities.

The opportunity cost of the Government's policy is twofold. First, they have failed to regenerate parts of Britain such as the north of England and some of our greater cities, which so desperately need investment, including in housing. There has been no injection of energy, led by the Government, inspired by policy and enacted by the private sector. Instead, 400,000 homes face demolition, many of which could be renovated in a more environmentally sustainable way than by their demolition and the building of new homes, and some of which are essential to the character of their areas. The policy is an inevitable consequence of the Government's declared intent to concentrate development where development pressure is already greatest.

The second prong of the opportunity cost of the Government's policy—

Photo of John Hayes

John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Transport; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

Let me first deal with the second prong. The hon. Gentleman can then attack me on both prongs simultaneously in what I am sure will be a witty and pithy intervention.

The second element in the Government's policy means destroying some of our precious environment. Since Labour came to power, it has approved no fewer than 162 schemes for building on green land that was intended to stop urban sprawl. The green belt is being developed where it should be used to protect against sprawl, and is being expanded where development pressure is at its least.

Some 90 per cent. of the land added to the green belt since 1997 is in areas described as scenic or remote. The principle of the green belt, which was introduced in this House in 1955 by Duncan Sandys, is to provide a tight circle of land around urban areas to prevent them from sprawling. That principle has been, at best, misunderstood, and, at worst, abused by the Government. When we talk about sustainability and look at the development of our towns and cities and at housing policies, we must understand that the twin losses of green belt and the opportunity for redevelopment in urban areas are direct products of the Government's policy.

I shall happily give way to the hon. Gentleman if he still wants to intervene.

Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

I shall try to attack the hon. Gentleman's prongs consecutively rather than simultaneously. First, I shall address the issue of older houses in the north of England. I am the only Member present from the north of England, and am probably the only Member present who was born in one of the older terraced houses to which he refers. Huge numbers of people are desperate for some of those houses to be demolished and replaced by modern, more energy-efficient, sustainable homes.

The hon. Gentleman made a second point about the green belt. Between 1979 and 1987, huge swathes of green belt in my constituency were built on to create enormous suburban housing estates with few, if any, social facilities, thereby contributing to the completely unsustainable lifestyles that many people are now forced to live. Does he think that the Conservative demolition of the green belt was somehow different from the Government's policy?

Photo of John Hayes

John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Transport; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

Let me deal first with the point about demolishing those homes. You will know, Mr. Hancock, because you are an assiduous student of these things, that the policy of demolishing homes, many of which are occupied, is contrary to English Heritage advice to the Government that renovating Victorian terraces is cheaper, more environmentally friendly and better for the local social fabric than demolition.

The Government often use the power of the regions to ride roughshod over local opinion in such matters. Local opinion may support demolition where it is appropriate, but the wholesale implementation of this policy through regional authorities without the proper involvement of local communities and irrespective of such advice causes a certain amount of alarm among all non-partisan observers. The hon. Gentleman may be a partisan observer, but I try to approach these things with a trifle more empiricism.

Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

With respect, I am a partisan observer because I was born and lived in one of those places. Many of my constituents still do and they want to get rid of them. I am not making sweeping generalisations. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that few members of the board of English Heritage or few of its senior officials ever lived in any of those houses, and I am sure that he would agree that the further away one is from an old, decrepit Victorian terrace, the more likely one is to support its preservation, so long as someone else lives there.

Photo of Mike Hancock

Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South, Liberal Democrat)

Order. That is more of a speech. Mr. Hayes takes interventions, but I should much prefer it if Mr. Chaytor waited for his chance to respond to the debate.

Photo of John Hayes

John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Transport; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

I do not want to be encouraged to go down a tributary and so to be distracted from the main thrust of what is, I am sure the whole Chamber would agree, a fascinating peroration.

I, too, have lived in a Victorian terraced house and when I have asked most politicians, builders and most other people of some importance whether they would choose or have chosen to live in a house built before or after 1900, the responses, which should not come as a surprise to many people but perhaps do to the hon. Gentleman, were that they would choose to live in older properties. They, for the most part, do not live in modern houses. I do not. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman and most of us present do, but let us not go down that road.

The truth is that the Government's sustainable communities plan flies in the face of the statements that they have made about sustainability, many of which were repeated by the Minister during his opening remarks. He said that on 7 March, the Government launched their strategy for sustainable development, "Securing the Future". However, what have they actually done to secure the future? One year ago, the Sustainable Development Commission published a critique of the Government's track record on sustainable development. Some of the comments on the report card that it created for the Government were:

"Greenhouse gas emissions: Disappointing. Road transport emissions and projected increases in air travel will cancel out reductions in other areas.

"Road traffic: Dreadful. Britain has the most congested roads in Europe, and we spend more time commuting than any other European nation. The Government's response seems to be to alter targets rather than change policies to meet previous targets.

"Waste: Dreadful. Municipal waste is rising faster than GDP and faster than in most other European countries. Recycling rates are rising, but are still among the lowest in Europe."

No doubt the Government will claim that they have improved their record since last year, or will maintain that this year's strategy will magic away their failures, but the RSPB has already drawn attention to its concerns that in the Government's sustainable development strategy, there is a lack of overall top-level responsibility for making the strategy work in practice, and that no one part of Government will ensure the overall implementation of the strategy.

I do not doubt for a moment the Minister's commitment to, nor his integrity in, such matters. He has a long and honourable record of taking more than just an interest in them. He was a champion of many elements of sustainability before they were fashionable. Before they were included in every speech, they were in his speeches. We are in the presence of a Minister who cares about such matters. However, I wonder if in his heart of hearts, he believes that there is sufficient co-operation between Departments, throughout the public sector and throughout other agencies to meet the admirable targets and objectives that the Government have laid out and that he has articulated.

I am not sure that on this matter there has been joined-up government, even if there has been the necessary joined-up thinking. That is of particular importance to sustainability, because it is integral to so many aspects of what we do. Sustainability is hard to achieve because of its complexity, because it is multi-faceted and because it affects so many areas of our lives. I do not underestimate the challenge when I make what I hope is constructive criticism.

Despite the Secretary of State's promises, made when launching the strategy, to put an emphasis on delivery rather than on challenging aspirations, we have been faced with a number of new or repeated promises, and a serious question mark hangs over the possibility of meeting them. Let us consider for a moment the Government's record on sustainable development.

The Government now have 68 sustainable development strategy indicators. It seems on occasion that they do their best to alter them when it suits them to do so. In a sense, it is better in politics to limit one's targets, to be straightforward and consistent about them and then be tested against them, than it is to be elaborate or creative about one's targets and thus to cause uncertainty about whether they have been met.

There used to be 15 headline indicators and 147 other indicators. The campaign for rural england points out that a

"key measure of countryside protection and efficient land use has been dropped."

If the Government are dropping targets that they do not think can be met and perhaps adding targets that are already on schedule—notwithstanding the appropriate words I used about the Minister's personal commitment—it is unsurprising that certain doubts have arisen about the nature of the commitment of the people who really run the show.

Governments are susceptible to the ministrations not only of those who favour sustainability but of those who endanger it. Dare I mention supermarkets, a subject for debate that might take even longer that the present subject? The power of large retailers affects all aspects of life. The stick that they wield when dealing with primary and secondary producers such as the many farmers in my constituency; their relationship with the consumer, which is at best patronising and at worst something altogether more sinister; and the influence that they have on public policy formation, all seem to be cause for serious concern. There has rarely been a case of such power being held by so few in so unaccountable a fashion.

I am a little surprised that the Minister did not address that point directly in his comments about sustainability. The major retailers have a great impact upon the mode of consumption and the nature of production, which affect lives throughout Britain. I want to see a rebalancing of the food chain in the interests of primary producers. I want to see a fairer deal for farmers. I want to see traceability being provided through a shorter food chain, with more emphasis on local supply. I look briefly to my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown, who has infinitely more experience of farming than I do, when I say that we appear to want our farmers to do more and more, yet we seem to value them less and less. I hope that the Minister will address that point during his summation of our debate.

One of the indicators of long-term sustainability is a record of what percentage of new homes are being built on previously developed brownfield land. That indicator no longer appears in the headline figures. That may be unsurprising because the Government's definition of brownfield land encourages what I have previously called town cramming: people's back gardens being built upon, even though the resultant developments are sometimes unsustainable in that they can have a significant impact on local water usage, air quality, wildlife and other environmental factors.

Although there are encouraging signs, which I shall acknowledge shortly, it seems that the Government have yet to recognise that brownfield land is a stream, not a reservoir; as land use changes, new development opportunities become available. There are two ways in which the Government could deal with the issue more imaginatively. The first is through the extensive redesignation of brownfield land for residential development rather than commercial development, where commercial development is unlikely to take place. What I mean is that much brownfield is currently designated for industrial or commercial development because it has a historic use of that kind. The decaying factory, the empty warehouse—we all know of sites that have been unused for perhaps a decade or more, but where there is faint hope that the industry will return. Meanwhile, land for residential development, which would be regenerative and environmentally desirable, goes wanting. Redesignation following a proper appraisal of the balance between those two requirements is one way of increasing development on brownfield land in many urban and suburban areas.

The second way is to free up large amounts of public-sector land—this is where I give the Government some credit, although they started about a year after I recommended it in Conservative housing and planning policy. There is good news on this front as the Government are taking the idea seriously. I hope that it will bear the fruit that I think it can. However, I issue a word of warning about 60,000 houses and the idea that such land should be made available solely for the building of houses for particular groups.

If I were a teacher or a nurse, I am not sure that I would want to work with my fellows all day and then go home and live with them all night on a campus designed by the Deputy Prime Minister. Such schemes may well not create real integrated communities. I suspect that people prefer to live next door to people who do other jobs, have other interests and do other things. Real communities are organic, are they not? They are mixed. I happily live in a lovely village that has all kinds of different people and it works for that very reason. Socially and culturally it is sustainable and delivers a high quality of life. I therefore issue a word of warning about the mix of Maplins and Chairman Mao that seems to lie behind the idea that we are going to force people who do certain jobs to live in prefabs. However, I welcome the idea that public sector land will be brought into the net more than it ever has been, because it is highly sustainable.

The sustainable communities plan has at its heart several misassumptions about sustainability. There are fundamental misassumptions concerning the demand on water, for instance, which in the south of England, including the constituency of Norman Baker, is a massive problem. A number of Select Committees have highlighted the threat to air quality, including the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee, which specifically commented on it in its critique of the sustainable communities plan. The Minister will already be aware of that, but I remind him anyway. The Committee warned of excessive pressure on water supply and other natural resources, and mentioned other sustainability issues, such as the costs of providing transport links, education and the other facilities that new neighbourhoods require.

The Committee also discussed the journey to work times, which affect not only quality of life but emissions, and the relocation of people to areas with which they have previously had no connection. The major house-builders, such as Barratt Homes and Wimpey, say that more than 80 per cent. of people buy their houses within 10 miles of where they live now. The idea that all development will be concentrated in four areas, with all the environmental impact that I have described, and that we will persuade builders to build those houses and people to live in them when their first preference, according to the major builders, is to live within 10 miles of where they live now, seems at best ambitious and at worst fanciful. There are real doubts about such concentrations of development. It is environmentally unsustainable.

As the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee said in the recommendations on neighbourhoods, sustainability is also about community and people's sense of worth and purpose, and those things are defined by our sense of identity, our sense of place. I am not sure that communities can be constructed in quite the way the Government intend. Change is best when it is incremental and organic, but I suppose people expect me to say that because I am a root-and-branch Conservative. Nevertheless, I do not believe that it is beyond anyone in this Chamber to have some sympathy with that perspective, which is widely shared beyond the political class.

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

That is all very lyrical and interesting, but there is an enormous demand for homes in the south and south-east. One reason why homes are expensive is that demand is fuelling high prices. We cannot ignore that. All I have heard are arguments against the development of communities. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that his party is opposed to the expansion of housing and to meeting the aspirations of many young people?

Photo of John Hayes

John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Transport; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

No. I know that the Minister does not have responsibility for housing, so I shall deal with that important intervention in three simple parts. First, there is the misassumption that house affordability is best dealt with by supply-side changes. Of course, that can be done, but given that the proportion of new housing to total stock is 1 per cent. and that only 10 per cent. of annual transactions involve new housing, to affect prices significantly by supply-side change would require building a massive number of houses, which is what Kate Barker recognised, and would probably take 10 or 15 years because of issues such as planning, land availability and local objections.

I suggest that house price affordability is principally a feature of demand-side issues, such as the level of borrowing secured by housing equity, net migration and interest rates. Those are the demand-side factors that drive up and hold up house prices. As we saw when the Chancellor adjusted interest rates recently, the effect of that on prices is considerably quicker and much more predictable than the changes that might result from the kind of building programme that the Minister describes.

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

Still new homes, then?

Photo of John Hayes

John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Transport; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

I shall come back to that.

The second point that the Minister implicitly made was about young people having access to the houses that they need. My judgment is that much the best way of allowing young people to get on to the housing ladder is by seriously concentrating on equity. Again, the Government accepted that about a year after I first recommended it. It is by making housing more available to the people who need it through dealing creatively with equity that one can affect affordability almost immediately—certainly more quickly—and more sustainably. I hope that there will be an equity revolution in which we can make many more homes available to the people who need them by bridging the gap between their means and what is available.

What we have in Britain is a mismatch between provision and need. Many people who live in large houses would love to live in accessible houses because the large house has become too big for them, but there is a shortage of accessible homes. Many people who live in rented accommodation say, whenever they are surveyed, that they would like to live in their own home. Many people who live in temporary accommodation would like to live in rented accommodation. Dealing with the mismatch between provision and need through equity, and breaking the barrier between ownership and social housing, would provide solutions.

The Minister's third point about where to build houses is perhaps the most difficult to answer. I do not take the view that we should necessarily dictate the number of houses that should be built nationally each year. We only do that in housing. We do not say that we should produce X number of baked beans every year. We do not get the Deputy Prime Minister saying how many Jags should be built in a year. Other Ministers do not suggest what sort of production there should be in all sorts of other sectors, but in housing we feel the need to say that X number of houses should be built in a year. I rather suspect that that is a finger in the air task, and the housing industry thinks so, too.

There is a need, however, to demand of local areas that they come up with a plan for the sustainable development of their locality. I would place that duty on areas, and expect the process to produce a notional number of houses needed. If a local authority were to act perversely and say that it did not want anything built anywhere, there might well be long-stop powers to intervene. A bottom-up approach would give us the sort of plans that we need to deliver the houses that people want in an incremental, organic and sustainable fashion. It is the centralised approach that lies at the heart of our problems. We need new houses. We need to look at equity and affordability, but not via the means that the Government are planning to employ.

The Government's housing targets, which I have mentioned, mean that, unless more measures are put in place, our water consumption will go up and up, resulting in water shortages or the need for more reservoirs and desalination plants. If our use of resources is to be truly sustainable, we cannot gloss over the subject and dismiss trends in water usage as entirely the result of hot weather. The Government's comments on those trends tend to do so. The more water that we consume, the less is available for other natural freshwater habitats, and those habitats already need as much help as they can get to grow sustainably.

The Government's indicator of sustainable development No. 30 concerns river quality and shows that the percentage of rivers of good biological quality has increased marginally in England since 1997. That is an issue with which the Minister is familiar as he takes great interest in both river quality and drainage issues. He is an authority on both. I take an interest in drainage myself, as he knows, and when I have been doing other jobs on the Opposition Front Bench we have exchanged ideas—I will not say crossed swords—on that subject.

Incidentally, although there are no Welsh or Northern Ireland Members here to hear this, the percentage of biologically sustainable rivers in Wales and Northern Ireland has decreased since 1997. I am sure that the Minister knows that, and I am sure that he shares my concern about it. It is also significant that some environmental groups believe that the current river quality indicator is inadequate and does not make a good assessment of the state of our rivers. The RSPB, for example, feels that the current indicators give an over-rosy view of the situation.

The Government have, in measuring the state of our rivers, ignored some of the most important factors in determining river quality such as nitrates and phosphates. We must also remember that the apparent improvements in other areas, such as fish stocks, are not all they seem at first. Almost two thirds of fish stocks remain outside safe biological limits.

While we are dealing with fish, I would like to mention sustainability in respect of the oceans that surround the United Kingdom. The Minister and I have exchanged views on that subject before. I want to make one point on the matter: the continuation of industrial fishing, and the effect that that has on the food source for white fish stocks, is an outrage. He shares that view and has articulated it in Europe to the best of his ability, but he has come up against the confines of the common fisheries policy.

The common fisheries policy is remarkable in that, bizarrely, during its lifetime, it has produced less fishermen and less fish simultaneously—[Interruption.] Yes, I have picked up on the grammatical correction—if only we studied classics more in our schools. It has produced fewer fishermen and fewer fish.

Photo of Mike Hancock

Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South, Liberal Democrat)

The hon. Gentleman is getting tired.

Photo of John Hayes

John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Transport; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

Indeed.

The Minister has waxed lyrical on that subject, but we need action. It is extraordinary that our oceans are depleted in that way. There are technological changes, closed areas and all kinds of environmentally sustainable means by which we can deal with that beyond the crude instruments of quotas and throwbacks, which are alarming to the public and ineffective in achieving their objective.

Moving on to the air, I want to say a little about birds. I will not go on endlessly, but these are important matters. I want to cover the principal points, as I know that the Minister would expect me to. Performance indicator 20 deals with bird populations. It has become obvious that farmland species of birds have declined since 1997. In anticipation of the debate, I was talking to a sustainable farmer in my constituency a few days ago. He is one of the farmers who have been involved in the entry-level scheme and he has been working closely with officials to work out the best ways in which to effect the beneficial implications of single-farm payments—the move away from payments coupled to production.

There has been a clear increase in the population of some species of birds, not only since 1997, but over the past two decades. It is certainly true that woodpeckers, tits, finches and others have done relatively well. It is also true that some of the birds of prey have done well. While I was visiting the farm, we saw a marsh harrier, which is always a treat; one does get them in the fens, of course. However, it is equally true that, as the Minister will know, a number of other species have declined quite radically. They are often the species that are more traditionally associated with a farmland landscape. I am worried that some of those decreases are taking the species beyond sustainable limits. In England, between 1971 and 1996–97, the wading bird population increased by 59 per cent. and the waterfowl population by 130 per cent., but the number of wintering wetland birds fell by 10 per cent. As I said, a number of other species are in serious decline.

The same indicators are applied to human satisfaction with our environment. I am sure that everyone will agree that one of the most important elements in sustainable development is creating an increasing standard of living for the people of Britain, while protecting the environment that we inhabit. Yet in the case of indicator 66—the percentage of households satisfied with the quality of the places in which they live—the percentage of households satisfied with their local area fell by 4.6 per cent. between 1999 and 2004. The figures show that 53 per cent. of households were bothered by traffic, 45 per cent. by litter and rubbish and 43 per cent. by vandalism and hooliganism.

Surely such failures on sustainable development indicators as widely varied as air quality, conservation and people's satisfaction cannot be ignored. The Government missed a trick with the decent homes standard. In my judgment, it should have been a decent communities standard that took into account the factors that affect quality of life outside people's front doors. It is fine to have a new bathroom or kitchen—we all want one, do we not?—but it is not much fun if someone leaves their bathroom showered and fresh and enters their neighbourhood to face graffiti, rubbish, vandalism and crime. What goes on outside people's front doors is at least as important as what happens in their homes in terms of their quality of life.

I urge the Government to consider how they might effect a decent communities standard using all the appropriate agencies to co-operate and to focus on those matters. That is what sustainability is really about: vitality, community and quality of life. To see sustainability narrowly as merely environmental—although I have mentioned a number of environmental considerations that are essential to it—seems to miss the point. We must have a more ambitious, broader, more hopeful view of what sustainable communities are really about. The indicators mentioned so far are of great importance, but, in light of some of the issues of sustainable development that affect not only us but the whole world, they may be neglected.

If we are to develop sustainably, it is imperative that we tackle the global issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions, the sustainable use of energy, the preservation of forests and the disposal of waste. Indeed, the Government's sustainable development website refers to climate change as the greatest threat. The Prime Minister has made a great point of that; he spoke about it recently when it came to the challenges facing him as he chairs the G8 and the EU. He described it as the

"single biggest issue facing the world".

Yet, in the past year, UK CO 2 emissions rose by 1.5 per cent. and are now higher than at any point since 1997. Since the Government came to power, carbon emissions have increased by 3 per cent. The Government are short of their target of reducing carbon emissions by 20 per cent., not surprisingly given that Britain's spending on energy research and development is only 10 per cent. that of France and 20 per cent. that of Germany.

Despite the fact that power generation emits 30 per cent. of the UK's total CO 2 emissions, the Government's renewables obligation stands at generating 5.5 per cent. of electricity from renewables. I do not say that renewable technology is the only answer; at the same time, we need to do as the Minister suggested with consumption. There is no greater example of the need to deal with consumption than the way people shop. I return, albeit briefly, to the issue of supermarkets.

When people shop in their neighbourhoods, as my wife does at the butcher's across the green from where we live, the only energy that they use is that which comes from their own soul. When they drive four miles to the supermarket and back again, they are implicitly acting in a way that is less environmentally friendly. Encouraging local consumption is critical.

Simultaneously, we have to deal with packaging waste, which has spiralled alarmingly even in my relatively short and the Minister's slightly longer lifetimes. When we were children, things were wrapped in brown paper tied with string and lemonade bottles were returned for a few pence. Now, everything we buy seems to have every possible material attached to it before we get to the good purchased.

I buy toys for my son that are 3 in long. They come in boxes that are immense and include metal, plastic, wood, paper and cardboard and all kinds of other materials that I cannot imagine. That is a new phenomenon. We must deal radically with packaging waste if we are to get to the heart of that side of the debate about sustainability and protection for the environment.

I should like to say a word on renewables. Can we move away from placing wind turbines in environmentally sensitive areas? Can we, for heaven's sake, consider the relative impact that the imposition of turbines has on the surrounding environment? It does not take a genius to work out that a 330 ft structure in a fenland siting will have a highly significant impact. It will be seen for miles, which would not be the case if it were placed somewhere less populated with a more undulating landscape, yet there is no provision to make such an assessment of the sites. We must invest in renewables, but not in a way that is damaging to the quality of life and the local environment of the people who have those industrial structures close by.

My final point concerns deforestation. The latest sustainable development report does not even mention the huge issue of the sustainable use of timber. It does deal with some of the other things that I have mentioned. It looks, for example, at recycling. There have been some improvements in recycling, as I said earlier. Most of us have probably witnessed that in our own homes and those of our constituents. However, we still have a long way to go. If Germany diverts nearly four times as much waste per person from landfill as the United Kingdom, and Denmark diverts nearly five times as much, we obviously need to do something serious about our disposal of waste. Perhaps we should pay more attention to some of the environmental groups that are still worried about the Government's action on those sustainability issues.

By contrast, the Government have been almost silent on the use of timber. As deforestation increases to unprecedented levels, we should remember that an estimated 60 per cent. of tropical timber imports to the UK are illegal. That clearly must not be allowed to continue, and the Government must ensure that any forest certification schemes that they approve are sustainable. They must also have proper audits and checks to ensure that such schemes really are sustainable. If we are to continue to believe that the Central Point of Expertise on Timber is effective in protecting forests, we must be told how the Government are progressing on the sustainable use of timber, and environmental groups' serious worries about the issue should not be ignored.

I am grateful for the Chamber's tolerance and indulgence, because I have spoken for a long time. As I said, the issue should go beyond the normal knockabout of partisan politics, because it is too important to be treated in that way. I hope that some of the issues that I have raised have struck a chord throughout the Chamber. I recognise that these are long-term issues. Many of the developments that I have raised began before 1997, and many of them will continue long after this Government have left office.

Human-scale development means that each human being feels valued. They must have the chance to develop a clear sense of identity and a real sense of purpose. To achieve that, we must be fierce in defence of the gentle. We must be determined to champion organic development. We must really care about sustainability. That is politics on a human scale—and that is the politics that I want to be part of.

Photo of Mike Hancock

Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South, Liberal Democrat)

It would be very uncharitable of anyone to say that that was anything other than a sustainable speech, Mr. Hayes. Very good.

3:42 pm
Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

As Mr. Hayes admirably demonstrated, sustainability extends over a wide area. There is a problem with the word, because people down the pub do not know what it means, although they do know what the word "environment" means. They do not yet have any connection with the concept of sustainable development, notwithstanding the fact that the Government regularly use it in all sorts of documents and speeches.

There is a further problem with the concept of sustainable development. Potentially, it can lessen environmental protection, although it need not and will not do so if properly applied. Ten years ago, we simply had the concept of environmental protection. We would consider whether an activity added to the environment or diminished it in some shape or form or whether regulation improved or worsened matters. Now, a triangular assessment is made, involving not only an action's environmental implications, but its social and economic implications. I do not have a problem with that concept; indeed, for social justice reasons—the Minister used that phrase—and other reasons, it is important to consider those three legs together. However, those who do not take the environment seriously or who wish to pursue an alternative that looks above and beyond the environment have the opportunity to dress that alternative up with the word "sustainable", when it is nothing of the sort.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings referred to the Deputy Prime Minister's sustainable communities. I remember being at school many years ago and being told that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman nor an empire and I suspect that the sustainable communities are neither sustainable nor really communities. The fact that the word "sustainable" has been stuck on the front does not deal with the problems of house building, particularly in the south-east. I listened to the exchange between the Minister and the hon. Gentleman, and I understand the need to consider housing on one hand and environmental problems on the other, but we cannot use the adjective "sustainable" and pretend that we have resolved the two, because we have not.

For example, the south-east has a major problem with water resources, as has been said. It is ludicrous that in my constituency a desalination plant is to be built off the coast at Newhaven, yet we have not yet grasped the nettle of water metering. So, someone can leave every tap in their house running all day and, if they are unmetered, will pay the same as someone who has their taps turned off all day. Given water scarcity in the south-east, where global warming is kicking in quickly and weather patterns are changing, and where significant development involving thousands of new homes is to be foisted on us—let us leave aside whether they are necessary—it is madness to ignore the policy's impact on water resources. The Government need to grasp the nettle of metering.

The Minister will know that I tabled amendments to the Water Bill to achieve the implementation of metering—quite courageously, I might add, because the policy does not necessarily enjoy universal support, although it needs to be implemented. I notice that the Minister has been talking about water metering in the past few days. He needs to grasp that nettle, follow through his convictions and bring forward a plan for universal metering, starting with the south-east. The Government should not leave that to water companies or blame someone else, but should take a lead themselves.

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

We have discussed this issue before, which is why the hon. Gentleman read my mind about what I was going to say. Water metering is the fairest and most sustainable way of paying for water. There is not water shortage throughout the country, however, and there are no shortages in the north of England. Therefore, the provision under the law for companies to apply for scarcity status, which will bring compulsory metering, is a reasonable way of addressing the problem.

Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

It might well be; we should start from the south-east, where the problem is greatest. However, the water companies that I speak to say that the hurdles are quite difficult to overcome.

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

indicated dissent.

Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

The Minister shakes his head, but that is what companies in my area have told me. They have therefore been reluctant to go down the road he described. Clearly the Government think that there is a political price to pay for metering and they want the water companies to take the rap for it. That is the reality. He should follow through his convictions and give a lead.

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

I want to put this on the record, because many people read our debates: it is a responsible water company that brings forward an application under water scarcity status. We must of course examine the case for and against, but if a company has a case, it is right and proper that it should make an application.

Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

I will continue to encourage companies to do so; however, I do not subscribe to the view that the Minister implies, which is that all water companies that have not applied are irresponsible.

I have a concern about the three legs of sustainable development—in fact, the Government's document sets out five principles. If we are to achieve ownership and deliver sustainable development properly, it must be on a co-ordinated and cross-departmental basis. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might have wonderful policies and the Minister might be fully signed up to them—as I am sure he and his boss are—but if they are outmanoeuvred by the Treasury, the Department of Trade or the Prime Minister, that does not take us much further forward. The real test is how well the concept is delivered, not by the Department that is its champion, but by other Departments.

Sometimes I find myself complaining to DEFRA Ministers in debates such as this about other Departments and I am reminded of someone complaining to a booking clerk about the train not running—it is not really that person's responsibility, but they are the only person to be found to moan at. I hope that the Minister does not find that comparison offensive, but, although DEFRA is on the right side of things, Ministers who perhaps are not do not appear in debates such as this.

I raise that for a good reason, because there have recently been debates in government about whether the definition of sustainable development should be changed. I refer the Minister to a letter that has come my way which was written on 13 May by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. It is quite clear from the letter that there are moves afoot not in DEFRA but within the Government to shift the emphasis of sustainable development away from the environment. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote:

"Government departments have agreed so far on comments on the draft principles for the declaration."

The declaration was to do with the EU. The letter continues:

"They have not been able to agree, however, on language in the declaration relating to the meaning of sustainable development. Several departments have argued for language which would depart"—

"depart" is underlined—

"from the established domestic and international understandings of sustainable development which emphasise the need for integration of the three pillars: economic, social and environmental. This is with the aim of protecting the new focus achieved in the Lisbon agenda on jobs and growth. Defra and some other departments have argued that the UK cannot and should not attempt to challenge the established understanding of sustainable development, but should press its concerns about Lisbon prioritising jobs and growth in other ways."

She goes on to say that

"we cannot"—

"cannot" is underlined—

"unilaterally choose to give it a different"—

"different" is also underlined—

"meaning. We are signed up globally—and very publicly—through the Rio and Johannesburg World Summits; our UK framework, which is shared with the devolved administrations, is based on the principle of integration and explicitly extends to our EU and wider international work".

She goes on complaining, with some justification, about other Departments.

I have tremendous respect for the Labour Members present. They are committed to the agenda, and I hope that they will use their good offices within the Labour party to try to back up the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and to deal with those who are causing the problems.

I refer to another document that has come my way. It says that it is unclassified, so I am sure that there is no problem with my having it. It is an internal Treasury memo about the previous letter. It is dated from May, and in paragraph 5 it says:

"The handling of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy between now and March 2006 has implications for the Treasury's economic reform agenda, as the strategy raises a number of risks for us."

Those who wrote these documents are very good at underlining words, as the memo continues with these words, which are also underlined:

"It is essential to ensure that if Lisbon is to be seen within this context"—

meaning the focus on jobs—

"the focus of Lisbon on growth and jobs secured at Spring European Council is not diluted . . . However, Whitehall discussions on the prioritisation of the economics pillar have been contentious: Mrs Beckett does not agree with language that protects the focus on jobs and growth."

The memo then argues for action to be taken.

The memo continues with a letter in May from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Financial Secretary says:

"I would support an alternative approach to the one that Margaret proposes concerning the interpretation of sustainable development. In particular, I would seek to make clear the prioritisation of the economics pillar over and above the environment and social pillars in the context of sustainable development, in order to maintain the hard-won focus on jobs and growth secured at Spring Council . . . I am copying this letter to the Prime Minister".

It seems that the good words that the Minister present and his boss are keen to use, and in which they believe fully, are yet again being undermined by other Departments—in this case the Treasury. Perhaps we need a Chancellor who is green and not Brown to deal with those matters. A litany of examples over the years, including abandoned cars, fridge mountains or the EU emissions trading limits, has shown that DEFRA puts forward the right solutions but is outmanoeuvred by other Departments which get their way. The Minister must deal with that, and he must argue his case within the Government. It is clear that the joined-up approach in which he would have us believe simply does not exist. He wants to pretend that there is a duck on the water, but underneath the surface they are paddling madly to try to get an agreement throughout Departments, and they are not managing terribly successfully.

That is important in other respects—for example, in world trade talks. The Doha follow-up round comes later this year, but so far as I can tell it will be handled not by DEFRA but by the DTI. I hope that DEFRA is involved. I would like DEFRA to handle it; no one would be more delighted than me if DEFRA was in charge of that process. Of course, the argument on jobs and growth to which I referred is very much a DTI matter, and it is particularly interested not in sustainable development but in the Barroso approach of the European Union.

Given that our Trade Commissioner is on record as taking a jobs and growth agenda approach, how can we be confident that attempts will be made to prioritise sustainable development in the World Trade Organisation talks, or to ensure that minimum environmental standards and minimum animal welfare standards are argued for in that process? Or will we be pursuing a 1950s-style chase for jobs and growth on the basis that everything else will trickle down—that if we get the jobs right, everything else will follow? That strategy, if it can be called a strategy, was discredited many years ago, but it is clearly creeping back into the Treasury's thinking. The Government have the opportunity later this year to become involved in that; they are probably doing so already through the EU presidency. They must ensure that the DEFRA view of sustainable development is triumphant rather than the view put forward by the Treasury and others. I do not think that they can.

It is clear that there are major problems in how Departments relate to sustainable development. I do not want to go on at great length about that, but it is obvious. For example, we have all seen pictures in the papers of the lights in the MOD building being left on all night. The Treasury's fuel bills have rocketed. Some in the Government do not appear terribly worried about the environment, energy efficiency or the other priorities that the Minister correctly sets out. Yes, they will pay lip service to them, but they still leave the lights on—and I doubt that they are busy writing documents on sustainable development; they have gone home for the night and left the lights on.

That obvious symbol, small in itself, shows that the concepts that the Minister and his team are arguing for so stridently and honestly are simply not being bought by other Departments. What will the Minister do to sort out his colleagues and to ensure ownership across Departments of the sustainable development agenda? That applies also to the House of Commons, which has some pretty poor practices. We also need to put our house in order.

The Minister said that I had put forward a false choice on climate change. I hope that he is right; I hope that it does turn out to be a false choice. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than the Prime Minister pulling a rabbit out of the hat and saying that we have a wonderful agreement. I would happily stand up and publicly congratulate him on that. I do not blame him for it, but I fear that he is trying to balance different interests. In the end, he will want a piece of paper that says, "We have an agreement."

It is a natural inclination for politicians to want agreement. The danger is that such an agreement would, to use Labour's words, take us back not forward. It is important that there is a bottom line; the Government should not sign an agreement if it does not take us forward. Unless the Prime Minister has avoided it, there may be a difficult choice. Perhaps the US will not sign up to anything except something admitting that, yes, global warming is happening and, yes, we should spend money on technology. If that is all that is said, it will be a step backwards, not a step forwards. We need more from President Bush than that.

The Minister may say that President Bush is coming forward, but let us bear in mind that he is doing so on the basis of being outside Kyoto, and that he has been brought forward not because he is in the process—he is outside it—but because of pressure from the rest of the world, including from the British Government and from his own side, from the Republicans, from Schwarzenegger and others in the US who are doing the right thing.

So, there is a diplomatic calculation to be made. If the agreement is weak and Bush agrees, which would effectively water down what everyone else wants, would that help the rest of us? Would it help Schwarzenegger in the US? Would it help McCain who is now arguing strongly for action on climate change? Would it help the north-eastern states, that have an emissions trading scheme up and running? Or would their positions be strengthened by the US President being isolated? I do not want him to be isolated; I want him on board, but not at any price. The agreement with the US cannot be at any price. I hope that that is the Government's approach, although, of course, they may not want to say so publicly.

This is a gigantic issue. I could happily go on for five or 10 minutes on every subject and enjoy it tremendously, but I suspect that it might slightly frustrate others if I did so. I shall address one more major issue—aviation—and to some extent link it with road transport. A look at the Government's record on carbon emissions shows that some good progress has been made. Industry has certainly played a significant part in that. We are making progress in the domestic sector on emissions, albeit slow and sluggish progress, but, as the Minister will know, we are not making progress with transport emissions, which are rising very fast. There seems to be no strategy to reduce them, except to hope that technology will come along and solve all the problems. That does not seem to me to be a satisfactory strategy.

We have abandoned the idea of road traffic reduction, which hon. Members may remember from the Deputy Prime Minister's early days in that role. It seems that that idea has gone out of the window, and that we are now back to a road transport policy of predict and provide. It is impossible to open railway lines in this country. In a recent answer to a question of mine, the Secretary of State for Transport stated that we have reopened 12 miles only of abandoned rail lines since Labour came to power. Yet there are sections of railway up and down the country that would benefit from being reopened. We all know where they are: there is one in my constituency—the Lewes to Uckfield section—and there are plenty of others, but we cannot seem to open them. We can build new roads, but we cannot get railways reopened, even if the cost is less. There is something seriously wrong with the mindset of the Treasury when it still says that money spent on roads is investment, but money spent on rail is subsidy. We need to move away from that way of thinking.

I return, lastly, to aviation. The Minister knows that, if the departmental answers are correct, there will be an increase in emissions of 83 per cent. by 2020, and that a quarter or even a third of carbon emissions in our lifetimes will be from aviation. That cannot be allowed to happen. We must abandon the predict and provide policy of building more and more runways and airports, which is in the aviation White Paper. We should put that White Paper in the bin and start again.

The Minister puts all his money on the emissions trading scheme. I am in favour of the scheme and I hope that it will work—it is certainly a useful tool—but who can guarantee that it will not be business as usual at entry level for aviation? Who can guarantee that the aviation industry will not simply continue to pollute and buy the permits because it will be a relatively small part of the whole package, at least in initial years? Who can guarantee that the scheme will start in 2008? The latest information is that for aviation it will be put back to 2012, by which time there will be a huge number of extra emissions.

We need something else in the short term, but the Government do not have anything. We need to shift airport passenger duty on to the plane, or introduce an emissions tax for take-off—something in the short term until emissions trading kicks in. We also need to keep open the option of a kerosene tax internationally and in the EU, although that is not my favoured method of dealing with the problem. It has drawbacks, about which the Minister well knows, but we ought to keep the option open, if only, frankly, to hang the threat of it over the heads of the aviation industry, so that we can say, "If you don't come up with something serious, you might find this landing on your doormat." It is dangerous to abandon other mechanisms and put all our eggs in the emissions trading basket without the certainty that it will deliver.

I hope that when the Minister replies, he will respond to my real concern—for which there is evidence in leaked documents—about the fact that other Departments do not take this matter seriously. I hope also that he will deal with my points about aviation and transport, and tell us the methods by which we are to control aviation emissions. Never mind setting targets; what methods will be used to ensure that emissions are controlled? Currently, there is no strategy to do that.

4:04 pm
Photo of Joan Walley

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North, Labour)

It is always a challenge to follow Norman Baker, who has spent so much time grappling with environmental issues. Mr. Hayes talked about the time that he had spent making his speech, and this debate is really all about time. What clearly emerges from the debate going on in the nation arising from the G8 summit is that we have little time to deal with this problem.

Many issues have been raised this afternoon. The eight or so Members in the Chamber—that reminds me of the eight at Gleneagles—know what the issues are. The question is not whether we should consider sustainable development, but how we should underpin it and integrate it with everything else that is done—every aspect of Government and international policy, every aspect of business and every aspect of Parliament's work, whether in the Chamber, in the other place, in Standing Committees or in Select Committees.

The question is also how to join up those issues, vertically and horizontally, because if we waste time and do not tackle them in the time available, future generations—our grandchildren, for whom we are doing all this, and who were considered in the Brundtland report and early work on sustainable development—will not thank us. That is why I am delighted that just at the time of the Gleneagles discussions the Government have timetabled a debate on sustainable development in this Chamber. That is the big picture. All that we do, we must do nationally, internationally and globally. We must find ways to work together. That is the challenge.

The challenge before us is also one of leadership. I speak as a non-member—although I hope soon to be reappointed—of the Environmental Audit Committee. The issue is one for Select Committees, and the Environmental Audit Committee has taken a leading role in Parliament in that regard. In its reports the Committee has repeatedly raised the question of the leadership role. We have reached the stage at which many of us know the issues, but cannot make progress without knowing what to do about them. I pay tribute to the leadership of our Prime Minister in getting global warming on the agenda at Gleneagles, and to those who, through music, over the weekend—not just in Hyde Park but in Europe and elsewhere—came together to gain greater understanding of the issues relating to poverty and the future of the planet.

What has emerged from previous Environmental Audit Committee reports as the key is the need for the leadership that the Prime Minister is now showing to be focused in Government and applied across Departments, from the Cabinet to the Treasury. I agree with the hon. Member for Lewes that that must be done in a cross-cutting way. We must mainstream all the things that we are talking about, which to many people still seem like another language, so that there is no excuse not to follow them through.

I hope that even if the Minister does not place in the Library leaked letters from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Treasury and others, he will at least share with us how the people who are converted to the agenda of sustainable development can help him and the Secretary of State to ensure that the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer understand that if we fail to deal with these issues, it will be at our peril.

Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

As I believe in freedom of information, may I offer to put the letters in the Library if that would be of any help to Members?

Photo of Joan Walley

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North, Labour)

I am sure that that offer has been noted but, freedom of information or not, the most important thing is serious discussion with the Treasury. A succession of Green Ministers has come before the Environmental Audit Committee, and it seems that although they get their feet under the Select Committee witness table and talk to us about how they take the issue seriously, they then go back to their Departments and it is not on their radar screen any more.

We must find ways of bringing Parliament and the Select Committees together to ensure that there is support for Ministers such as my hon. Friend who is with us this afternoon to make an even stronger case for the progress that needs to be made on sustainability when they are dealing with pre-legislative scrutiny, the presidency of the European Union and working on the Montreal protocol, the conference of the parties and all the other treaties and negotiations that will come up during the next six months. I hope that this debate, brief as it is, will be an opportunity to do that.

I want to speak briefly about the work of the Environmental Audit Committee, which I hope will be reconvened early next week, or whenever all the other Select Committees are reconvened. It has an important role. "The Sustainable Development Strategy: Illusion or Reality?" was published in November. For understandable reasons—for example, the general election—we were happy to give the Government some leeway on the usual time taken to respond. I welcomed the way in which my hon. Friend the Minister handled the Government's response to the report. The Select Committee was talking about getting things done. However, rather than expecting the Government to respond in March, just before the general election, when perhaps they would not have had the opportunity to include all the good things that are there to be used in the sustainable development strategy, we were happy to wait for their response until the Select Committee was reconvened. All credit to the Minister for publishing it through the good offices of DEFRA, rather than waiting for the Select Committee to be reconvened before publishing it. That is a way of working together positively.

As for the agenda, the real issue now is how the Government's new sustainable development strategy is embraced, taken up and acted on, not just in Whitehall but around the country. The Select Committee agrees with some things and would like some things to be taken further. One issue that comes up is the relationship between the Environmental Audit Committee that will be formed next week and the implementation of the sustainable development strategy. That must be reviewed to ensure that there is clarity about roles, remits and opportunities to work more closely together. I hope that a debate, or negotiations, can take place, because we all need to reinforce the way in which we work together.

One issue in the new strategy that I want to flag up is the role of the Treasury, which the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned. Much of what the Government do is driven, rightly, by the competitive agenda and the need for jobs, and it is a real challenge to determine where environmental standards, values and regulations fit into that. It is clear that much of what is done around the country and within government is driven by service performance targets, yet how many of the Treasury's targets include environmental standards? Very few. Unless we find a way of putting the Treasury centre stage among Government Departments for the delivery of sustainable development so that it can work jointly, hand in hand with DEFRA, we will be talking to ourselves, and complaining at the railway station to whoever is directing us where to go, rather than being able to find someone who has overall responsibility for the whole agenda. That is why my plea is for DEFRA and our Prime Minister to accept that leadership role.

I accept that there will be issues. We need to know what the problems are and why the Treasury is not doing something—for example, why it has not gone further to solve the problem of VAT on building on brownfield sites. The Treasury was approached to find out why it was not giving tax concessions for brand-new kilns that considerably reduce carbon emissions, although there are tax concessions in other sectors for new investment and new technology. I am a little mystified that, despite the guidance from the Carbon Trust that much of the carbon emissions from kilns that work 24 hours a day in the ceramics industry could be avoided, the Treasury has not acknowledged that by giving the manufacturers tax concessions as an incentive to invest.

Those are anomalies, and we need to put them on the table so that we can identify them. One issue that has been mentioned in relation to house building and transport is that all too often, predict and provide has been the principle underpinning the Government's policies. We need to consider how to make what we do seem sensible to local communities, how that can be organically driven, and how tax concessions and the Treasury can work hand in hand with DEFRA to ensure that that policy is rolled out in Government policy throughout the country.

In the short time now left to me, I want to speak about education. During the previous Session, the Environmental Audit Committee, under my chairmanship, produced a report on education for sustainable development. The Government give a huge amount of attention to sport, and how to educate people through sport with match funding from the Department for Education and Skills. I applaud that, and it is wonderful that we will see all the benefits of it, not least following the wonderful news that London is to host the Olympics. I am not in any way bemoaning the fact that all that investment will be given to sport and regeneration through sport. However, when people such as Sir David King, the Archbishop of Canterbury, our Prime Minister and even the President of the United States say that global warming is an issue that we must consider, I cannot understand why, underpinning our education policy, the Government are not giving to the environmental aspects of sustainable development the same commitment as they have given to sport.

If we are planning new areas and new communities, we need to train building construction workers and engineers who will not just build drains as they always have, but will realise that because of water shortages we need pipes that will conserve water. We must look at the whole spectrum of work that needs to be done. Unless we train people, we will end up without the trained, skilled, professional people to deliver our regeneration agenda for building, through sport or anything else. We are dealing with an agenda of change, and time is running out for us to bring about the attitude change that we need so that we can change what we do, and not just meet our targets but take the agenda further.

People need to know what the debate is about. In my work as a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, I always meet a few good vice-chancellors and a few good directors of further education colleges who understand the issue. Some people understand the agenda, but many people have no idea what we are talking about. There is no common "literacy", or understanding of the problem.

My question to the Minister is: what can we do to help his efforts to encourage education about sustainable development? We must not end up with professional architects, designers and people involved in business who have no understanding of the agenda, or they will carry on doing things as they have always done them, because they do not understand that we are in the process of change. Change is often uncomfortable, and means learning new skills.

On that point, I say to the Minister as an aside that, sadly, a planned visit to SkillCity with the Prince of Wales was called off this morning because of the difficulties in London, of which everyone is only too aware. This debate involves the issue of funding the Learning and Skills Council, and the training of construction workers. We need construction workers to be trained in sustainable development. It is no good building to the old designs if houses are leaking energy right, left and centre. Cuts are being made, and we must make sure that if budgets must be changed, it is not sustainable development and environmental concerns that get cut. We must make sure that the priority is to provide what we need for the future.

Another issue is aviation. How will we use the EU presidency to make real progress on that issue? Many business men and women will think, "Why should we go along with the emissions trading scheme when airlines can expand their operations?" We must all sign up to the issue together.

That is why I particularly welcome the Minister's speech at the outset of the debate. The value of this debate might lie in sending his speech, with its list of the things being done, out to leaders and champions at local and regional level throughout the country, rather than just putting it on a website. Can my hon. Friend find a way of doing that? It would be a means of promoting discussion and getting people signed up to what needs to be done.

Finally, like the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who speaks for the Opposition, I shall flag up the issue of timber procurement. The Minister may remember that two years or so ago, I asked the Prime Minister why we were refurbishing the Cabinet Office with timber from endangered species. I am pleased to say that the Government have done a huge amount of work since then, and have apologised for doing that. We now have a strategy on timber procurement, and headway has been made on it.

Discussions are going on. I was in the fortunate position of chairing a meeting in the House that was attended by both Greenpeace and the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians. That meeting considered how to promote among construction workers an understanding of the need to use non-endangered species timber in construction. That was a way of taking the issue forward.

However, there are concerns about whether that process has stalled. Will the Minister tell us briefly what discussions he has had with various non-governmental organisations about illegal timber? Why is it not one of the Government's indicators? Many of us believe that it should be a high priority in any serious consideration of sustainable development. The Forest Stewardship Council is currently the only credible certifier of sustainable timber, and it is vital that the central point of expertise on timber does not bow to industry pressure to adopt less stringent schemes.

Members have referred in all sorts of ways to biodiversity and the cost of illegal logging. When the Environmental Audit Committee considered the issue, it found that public construction paid for by the Government and local authorities accounted for a huge proportion of current building. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has done a great deal of work on this already, but perhaps we need to do some more. If he cannot give me an answer today, perhaps he will give me an assurance after the debate.

Can we wait for the European Union presidency in six or 18 months' time to take up the issue? What are the UK Government doing now to ensure that we are not inadvertently using timber that has not been properly certified? This is a procurement issue, and there must be a way of dealing with it.

I am conscious of the time that I have taken, but I end by noting all the initiatives around the country, such as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's new sustainable communities agenda, local authority agreements, and all sorts of opportunities to work in partnership with local councils, with business, with regional development agencies and with Government offices.

I note with great interest that my own Government office for the west midlands has produced a guide to environmental sustainability. We have all these glossy documents, which I hope are printed on recycled paper, but what we really need to know is how we can keep tabs on what is being done and how we are rolling it out, so that at the end of the day I can put my hand up in my constituency and say that all the boxes that need to be ticked are ticked, or that we are missing certain targets, but that we are, for example, energy-efficient. I also hope that we will secure European funding for initiatives such as the Burslem masterplan.

We need to see how we can help the Minister to do all that, which is why I am so pleased that we are having this debate in Westminster Hall while the Gleneagles summit is taking place.

4:27 pm
Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

I am pleased that we are having this debate today. The timing is hugely appropriate, not least because of the coincidence of the Gleneagles debate on climate change.

In my eight years as a Member of this House, it is indisputable that the United Kingdom has made more progress towards becoming a genuinely sustainable society than at any point in the previous eight, 18 or 80 years. We have made huge progress, and my hon. Friend the Minister, his predecessor, the Secretary of State, and now the Prime Minister deserve enormous credit for that.

Given the discussions on climate change at Gleneagles today, the wider issues of sustainable development have never had such a high profile in the media or the public consciousness. I welcome the publication of the Government's new sustainable development strategy, but I shall quote briefly from the Environmental Audit Committee's report on it, which was published last October. The concluding paragraph says:

"We realise that these are difficult issues for politicians across the world because it is always easier to trade-off short term economic and social gains against long-term environmental goals."

Without giving any credibility to Norman Baker, I suspect that that is what underlies his concerns about the correspondence that he quoted.

The report continues:

"It is therefore essential to build a consensus across political parties on the priority and approach required to address environmental issues, while at the same time promoting a far greater and more profound understanding among the public of the global consequences of our current lifestyles."

I shall say a little about the difficulty in building consensus and promoting a greater and more profound understanding among the public. It is self-evident that the overwhelming majority of Members have decided that these issues are so difficult that they cannot conceivably grapple with them on a Thursday afternoon in Westminster Hall. The level of attendance today speaks for itself. It is unfortunate that we are competing with a debate on defence in the main Chamber, but perhaps that competition is significant and says something about the Government's priorities.

In that respect, I want to raise an issue that has been debated on several occasions, although I do not apologise for raising it again. As a matter of course during the year, the Government have a fixed number of debates in their own time on issues such as defence, agriculture and Wales, and the time has surely come for them to have an annual debate on sustainable development. I do not expect that to happen in the very near future, but when the Government publish their reviewed climate change strategy later this year, clearly there will be an opportunity to have that important debate, and preferably on a day when there is a three-line Whip on something else to maximise attendance. I make that point to demonstrate the difficulty that many politicians have in dealing with this issue.

On consensus, there was much with which I could agree in the remarks of my hon. Friend Joan Walley, as well as in those of the Conservative spokesman, Mr. Hayes, and of Mr. Clifton-Brown. Regardless of the little spat between the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and myself over his desire to preserve clapped out, single-skin, brick-built, roofless houses in Salford's back streets—I am just questioning his romantic view of those matters—the rest of his speech was an admirable critique of many of the issues with which we are concerned. I certainly agree with many of the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Lewes.

How do we reconcile the fact that I am saying that the Government have done more on this issue than any previous Government with the fact that I agree with the criticisms from both the Opposition parties? We reconcile them by saying that these are impossibly complex issues, which no one party can resolve alone in the time scale of one or even two Parliaments. That reinforces the point that there must be collective, cross-party agreement not only on certain basic principles, but on certain basic policies. Although I agree with much of what the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, it is significant that the main Opposition party has almost routinely opposed every policy that has advanced the cause of the sustainable development that has taken place in the past eight years. That cannot continue and we must have a different way of operating, with agreement not only on basic principles, but on basic policies.

The matter came up in last week's debate on climate change in the main Chamber, which was, I think, in the name of the Liberal Democrats. The shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr. Letwin, argued that we had perhaps reached the point at which we needed a mechanism to take certain issues outside the parliamentary forum. Soon after the 1997 election, the Government gave the Bank of England responsibility for the key economic policy decision, and we perhaps need a similar external, independent process to establish the basic principles and policies that will underpin the development of our environmental policy.

Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

I just want to raise an important point about consensus, because we need to move forward on the issue. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although there is a need for consensus, there is not necessarily a need to involve outside bodies? We all signed up to the concept of the UN, for example, and that is now taken as read without the need for an outside body to audit that for us. My party—I do not say this for narrow party reasons, in any shape or form—has written to the leaders of the other parties on this issue, pledging agreement on the science, targets and possibly the policies. We have not had a positive response to that offer, but it remains open. I am renewing it this afternoon and I shall shortly be renewing it in letters to the right hon. Member for West Dorset and the Secretary of State. We must approach the issue sensibly and move forward on a common basis. If we do not, my serious concern is that we shall not get agreement on difficult issues such as aviation.

Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I shall encourage my right hon. and hon. Friends to respond positively to that offer, without, obviously, falling into any political traps that may be laid. My general point, however, is that debate in the traditional parliamentary forum—not so much this Chamber, but the main Chamber—is not the best way to build the consensus that we appear to agree is necessary.

In terms of developing a greater and more profound understanding among the public, may I move on to the timing of this debate? It has taken place, purely accidentally, the day after London was awarded the Olympic games for 2012. That is an enormous cause for national celebration and a great opportunity, and is relevant to this debate.

The Minister, in his opening remarks, commented on the important aspects of sustainability in the British bid. However, I believe that there is further to go in that area. The Olympic games will be a momentous event and will reach many millions of British citizens who have no interest in environmental or energy policy, and for whom climate change barely scratches the surface of their consciousness. We are talking about many young people and people who are fascinated by sport. We will attract to the United Kingdom in 2012 the largest concentration of some of the healthiest people in the world. We will embark on a major programme of construction, with major implications for the transport and housing of those vast numbers of athletes, supporters and tourists, and all the media circus that surround the games. It therefore seems to me that there is a huge opportunity for the Government to take a great step forward in raising understanding of sustainable development issues among the British population as a whole.

Photo of Joan Walley

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North, Labour)

I want to ask my hon. Friend a question that relates to what he suggests and links in with the final part of the Minister's opening speech. A statement was made during business questions earlier today about the possibility of the House examining a different way of working—in a cross-party, cross-policy way—with the aim of involving hon. Members on both sides in the planning for the Olympic games. In terms of the current proposals that are under active consideration, does my hon. Friend agree that we should ask the Minister to take back from this debate a request to the Leader of the House that we underpin the Olympics with sustainable development?

Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I was struck by the suggestion at business questions today that there should be a Joint Committee to scrutinise the progress of the preparations for the games. In fact, my hon. Friend has given me another thought, almost as I speak, that perhaps we need a similar mechanism to build consensus on climate change. Although climate change is considered and scrutinised effectively by many individual Select Committees of both Houses, perhaps there is an argument for setting up a Joint Committee of both Houses specifically to monitor the implementation of the Government's policy on climate change. Perhaps we can return to that matter later.

I believe that there is an opportunity—perhaps it is a greater opportunity than has previously been thought—for the United Kingdom not only to host the Olympic games in 2012, but to host the first green Olympics. The impact of that on international opinion and in raising the awareness of climate change, energy, sustainable building, healthy lifestyles and the quality of food among our own population, and particularly among young people, could be enormous. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can take that matter back and have some further discussion on those matters with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Having made the point about the potential of the Olympics, may I also say that that links in with Government procurement? Although the Government will not be procuring everything for the Olympic games, they can set the standards. I refer, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, to the Environmental Audit Committee's report on procurement, published some weeks ago, to which I do not think that the Government have yet given their response. Although it is outside the time period in which responses should be given, there is currently no Environmental Audit Committee in existence, so perhaps that is the Government's excuse for not having given their response. However, we look forward to that response.

The feeling of most members of the Committee was that those responsible for Government procurement had not necessarily fully taken on board the implications of sustainable development policies. There is a huge way to go to set the highest environmental standards and to raise the understanding of those people who do the job on a day-to-day basis—ordering the biros and the boilers. There are trade-offs in environmental standards and costings, and we are not disputing that. Clearly, however, there are issues about life cycle costings and we were not confident that all aspects of Government had fully taken on board the life cycle savings to be made by purchasing more environmentally friendly products.

I want to make one specific reference. I was struck by the comment made by the hon. Member for Lewes about stand-by power. That was picked up in the climate change debate last week by a Conservative Member, Mr. Hurd, and was stimulated by the important campaign launched by The Independent some weeks ago. I want to reinforce my support for the urgency of the Government taking that question on board.

The eco-design directive is starting its long process, but it will be a long time before its implementation is taken fully on board by all member states. Over the past few months, I have been involved with a small international group that is trying to promote the idea of all Governments having a maximum stand-by power limit of 1 W for all electrical equipment. It happens in some parts of the world already and is not too difficult. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the establishment of energy efficiency labelling on white goods has had a dramatic effect on the market, has driven up environmental standards remarkably and has changed consumer behaviour. We are not yet at that point with electrical equipment—I am not sure whether they are called black goods, brown goods or grey goods—such as DVD players, televisions or computers. We do not have the same energy efficiency labelling. We need that and we certainly need a maximum wattage for stand-by power.

I made my point about the Olympics and the potential for an enormous marketing exercise with Britain as the host of the first green Olympics, as well as the enormous potential for improving standards in Government procurement on the back of that. However, let me go back to the timing. This debate not only competes with the debate on defence but follows the appalling events that took place this morning.

I want now to move on to another issue and to relate environmental sustainability and climate change to global security. That is not of immediate concern to most people; they do not make that connection. However, more and more, we need to talk about climate change in the context of global and national security. This afternoon, I was torn as to which debate to speak in—I thought of going to the defence debate and talking about climate change, which would probably have been the first occasion on which anyone had done so. I decided in preference to come here and talk about security. The appalling growth in terrorism cannot be defeated by military means and will be defeated only by the creation of a more just and sustainable world, in which the world's natural resources are more equitably shared.

We cannot ignore—I leave aside terrorism—international migration and the appalling consequences of climate change: the increasing desertification that is moving many millions of people from their traditional homes and the impact of flooding and storms in certain parts of the world. We cannot ignore the fact that there is a link between climate change and patterns of international migration, and all the uncertainties and difficulties that that brings.

The debate about climate change has traditionally flagged up the need for sacrifice, which is why we are not making enough progress with the general public. The resistance to the radical policy changes that are needed will be led by people who say that they cannot be expected to reduce their standard of living to respond to climate change that might not affect them for 50 years. When we talk about using fiscal measures to reduce our emissions for example, the debate is always about individual sacrifice and penalising people.

We must get away from that and shift the terms of the debate, not to one in which one section of the population is penalised for a benefit that we might not experience for 30, 40 or 50 years, but to a debate in which we accept that climate change is an external threat to us all and that we can deal with it only through collective action. In many respects, it is equally, if not more, appropriate that climate change is debated in the context of national defence. We have to protect ourselves as a nation against its severest effects, whether that is rising sea levels, growing storms here or desertification in other countries, or the social conflict, civil war and international terrorism that result from that.

I am sorry if I am making slow progress, Mr. Hancock. I understood your earlier admonishment about an intervention that was too long, although it struck me that, as there is no rule about the length of interventions, our guiding principle should be that the length of intervention is inversely proportionate to the number of people in the Room and the pressure on time.

I do not want to delay us too much, but I want to speak about environmental taxation. I suppose the problem is that, although the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment is responding to the debate and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs takes the lead on sustainable development, we know that the key levers of power on the issue lie elsewhere: in the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry, because of the latter's control of energy policy. I raise the question of environmental taxation, even though my hon. Friend the Minister has no responsibility for it.

After 1997, the Government got off to a good start by publishing their statement of intent on environmental taxation. There was great support for what the Treasury was trying to do, and in the past two Parliaments we have introduced a number of environmental taxes that have had positive effects. Most have been introduced with a degree of consensus and public understanding. In November 2002, the Treasury made further progress by publishing "Tax and the environment: using economic instruments". However, since then, despite that excellent document with its clear analysis and specific proposals, I sense that we have taken our foot off the accelerator in shifting the burden of taxation from bads to goods and from labour to environmental damage and pollution.

I know that the issues are hugely difficult. Ever since the fuel dispute of September 2000, any Government would be nervous about pushing the limits of environmental taxation beyond what we know can be sustained by public opinion. However, as I have argued several times—I may be the only Member who stands up to say this—fuel duty should be increased because it is a key form of environmental taxation.

We know about the difficulty that we have in transport policy because we are a major contributor to CO 2 emissions. We have a temporary difficulty in that our emissions have risen slightly, but as the Secretary of State said at DEFRA questions this morning, we are on track to meet our Kyoto targets. However, if we are to do something about the huge increase in mobility on the back of the enormous prosperity that our Government have engendered; the increase in emissions from transport, particularly private vehicles; the huge increase in the number of miles that people are travelling; and the cheapness with which people can now buy private cars—if they buy them they do not want them to sit at home in the garage—we have to confront the cost of travelling and the cost of private transport.

I am not saying that we should crash ahead regardless and risk another national dispute with truck drivers, farmers and all the other hangers on from the British National party and the Countryside Alliance because I know that there are aspects of fuel duty and other forms of environmental taxes that are regressive. The Government have to confront the issue; they cannot for ever run away from it.

This week, the Treasury announced that it will now not go ahead with the annual uprating of fuel duty in October because of the global rise in oil prices, but there must be an alternative solution. One solution would be to make it explicit that there was going to be a revenue-neutral policy where fuel duty was to be offset, perhaps by reductions in income tax. We did that perfectly successfully with the climate change levy, which was explicitly a revenue-neutral policy that was offset by reductions in national insurance. It has worked effectively—people have grumbled about it in some ways—and we have a consensus. I now float the idea that perhaps we have to think far more creatively about transport taxation and have trade-offs between the level of income tax and a higher level of fuel duty.

Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

I am instinctively sympathetic about that, as the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear. Perhaps all of us failed to make the environmental case at the time of the fuel protests—in particular, the Government. After all, the cost of motoring has gone down over the years while the cost of public transport use has increased horrifically.

However, is it not the case that fuel is most expensive in areas where public transport is worst, such as in the highlands of Scotland where there is really no alternative to the private car? The cheapest place to buy petrol is the middle of London. Is road-user charging not a better solution in the medium-term? We can do that as soon as possible, and it is a far more malleable policy in the sense that it can be fixed to achieve the environmental ends we want while not penalising those who have no alternative.

Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point completely and in the long-term, what he describes will probably be the case. However, the likelihood of having road-user charging on the A927 in Ross and Cromarty in the near future is probably remote. We have to accept that in the short term, fuel duty is a proxy for road-user charging. Arguably, fuel duty is the simplest form of road pricing.

Photo of John Hayes

John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Transport; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

In a more typical fashion, as the shadow Transport Minister, I would like to say that the real point about pricing is that we must distinguish essential car use from voluntary car use and recreational car use. Until that can be done in a persuasive, coherent and—dare I say—sustainable way, pricing is a very thorny subject.

Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am not sure, however, that we can easily distinguish between the different sorts of vehicle use. That is the problem.

I shall give an example to illustrate the mountain that we have to climb. The recent impact of the slight—by our standards—rise in the cost of gasoline in the United States has had a noticeable effect on the purchase of sports utility vehicles there—those great gas guzzlers that are far more suited to the centre of Baghdad than to suburbs in small-town America. The American public is now putting two and two together and realising that the appalling trend of the Detroit car industry producing more of those vehicles is unsustainable. In Britain, precisely the opposite is happening. In the suburbs of my constituency, there are more and more British forms of SUV coming on to the roads. That is because of the rising level of prosperity that I am proud to say my Government have achieved over the past eight years, but also because those vehicles are so cheap to buy and run for those in that income bracket. If we do not confront this issue, we will never ultimately contain our CO 2 emissions and meet our Kyoto targets.

Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

Another short-term mechanism, prior to road-user charging, would be to vary much more significantly the bands for road tax. It is perfectly possible—indeed, it is desirable—to have a huge increase in road tax for the sort of machines that the hon. Gentleman rightly castigates for urban use, at the same time as a significant drop in the cost for cleaner cars.

Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

I agree completely. I have put that point to Treasury Ministers when they have appeared before the Environmental Audit Committee. The advantage of greater variability in the vehicle excise duty banding is that it would be popular, because the vast majority of the population do not drive gas-guzzlers or large BMW SUVs. In my experience, the average motorist is increasingly resentful of the impact—in terms of congestion, pollution and occupation of road space—of these enormous vehicles. Having a progressive, redistributive vehicle excise duty system would be a political winner for the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of that and have further discussions with his colleagues in the Treasury.

I will move on to two further points. The first concerns definition. I recollect that in the 1999 strategy for sustainable development there was an acceptance—if not explicitly, certainly implicitly—that the classic definition of sustainable development by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister, was the one that the Government would accept. As time moved on, we developed our own definition—the three-legged definition—under which sustainable development was partly environmental, partly social and partly economic. I am interested that in the new strategy we now have five criteria by which Government performance will be judged, including not just social, economic and environmental issues, but the issues of good governance and the importance of sound science.

All of those five criteria are important to build a better society, but I am not sure whether they, as a whole, are going to help us to an environmentally more sustainable society. That is for the simple reason that, as environmental sustainability is only one of the five criteria, it is likely that it will be brushed aside by the constant desire of any Government to focus on improvements in standards of living and the economy.

I will digress for a moment to give a small example of how that works in practice in legislation that is currently passing through Parliament. In the Standing Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill just two weeks ago, an interesting set of amendments was tabled on the responsibility of public authorities in relation to biodiversity. I accept that biodiversity is not totally equivalent to sustainable development, but the point will become clear as I describe it.

Clause 40 of the Bill requires every public authority, in exercising its functions, to

"have regard . . . to the purpose of conserving biodiversity."

Of course, it is easy to have regard to something without doing anything about it. It is easy to have regard to it and then ignore it completely and go in the opposite direction. There was an amendment to delete the term "have regard" and introduce the word "further". Giving public authorities a duty to further the conservation of biodiversity would be a far more powerful tool than that which we have in the Bill.

I raise that point as a message to my hon. Friend the Minister. Although the amendment was not carried in Committee, it may well return on Report, when there may be further discussion about it. It seems a striking example of how individual pieces of legislation can allow the cause of sustainability to be sidelined if the environmental aspect of sustainability is only one of three, four, five or any number of criteria.

The consequences of globalisation are another long-term issue with which I hope the Government shall grapple. The issue has been touched on by other hon. Members, and no one can dispute that globalisation exists. It is foolish to shut our minds to it, pretend that it will not happen and that it will go away. It provides the most wonderful opportunities for human advancement that we have ever seen. However, there are tensions in terms of our national policies, the sustainability of our economy and our society, and our capacity to sustain a healthy planet.

I shall highlight a contradiction in two fashionable lines of thought. First, in the context of agricultural policy and the reform of the common agricultural policy, the Government have been hugely successful in linking CAP reform to progress in Africa. I was going to say hugely successful in outmanoeuvring the French, but I do not think that that is true, and I am not in favour of such petty, nationalist rhetoric. Progress in Africa has taken place, not just by distributing dollops of aid from the west, but by building up Africa's economic capacity and ability to trade.

We are all now in favour of abolishing the CAP and of stopping the $2 per cow subsidy to French farmers. However, we must ask ourselves whether it is sustainable in the long term to source our tomatoes and peppers from Cameroon, as against southern France and southern Spain. In getting rid of one kind of distortion in the market, which is the subsidy to European farmers, are we not in danger of creating another completely dysfunctional market, in which more and more frequently, the food going to the richer nations of north America and western Europe travels many thousands of miles before it gets there? That is the dilemma.

While we are arguing about the importance of freeing up African farmers to sell their goods to the west, we are saying that local food production is important, and that we are all in favour of farmers markets in our constituencies. In my constituency of Bury, North, where there is an excellent monthly farmers market in the small town of Ramsbottom, I know that there are not many local farmers who will be producing mangetout. It will have to be imported if there is a demand for it in the north of England. We must resolve that contradiction. We cannot simultaneously call for and build policies to support more local food production in our communities and our country, while arguing for a globalised system of food production in which food travels many thousands of miles.

Photo of John Hayes

John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Transport; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman makes a most interesting point. If we are to shorten the food production chain, we shall have to face those difficult questions. I wonder if he will consider another distortion with which he may not be so familiar. In the European Union, there is a debate about reform of the sugar regime. The sugar regime protects the price of sugar through a special arrangement with Afro-Caribbean countries which secures their markets. All Tate & Lyle's sugar is cane sugar that is provided by those means. The reform of that regime will be not only injurious to British sugar beet producers, but deeply harmful to those countries highly dependent on the production of cane sugar. It will benefit the sophisticated and wealthy sugar producers in Brazil and Australia—countries that receive high levels of investment from the United States.

Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman highlights the complexity of these issues. The issue of globalised energy production is related to the issue of globalised food production. Sugar, of all crops, has the capacity to be a powerful supply of biofuels. One great irony of our global trading system is that in Brazil, a significant amount of bioethanol is produced from sugar, but it cannot be sold cost-effectively to the European Union. I understand that a scientific block on the huge expansion of production of fuel from crops is now in the process of being dissolved. Traditionally only part of the crop could be used for fuel and the rest was thrown away, but I understand that new scientific breakthroughs will allow the whole of the crop to be used because the sugars in the whole of the plant can now be broken down. We are on the verge of a great scientific breakthrough in the production of biofuels, and our international trading system has to allow for growth in those markets in order to reduce global carbon emissions.

We are moving towards the end of the debate. I would like to endorse many of the things that other hon. Members have proposed, but that would be tedious and repetitive. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment about the first green Olympics. I hope that he will comment on the feasibility of an annual debate in Government time on sustainable development. I hope that he will bear in mind what has been said about the amendment to the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill on the importance of public authorities seeking to further biodiversity and not merely to have regard to it.

5:06 pm
Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

This has been a good debate. I appreciate the contributions that were made by the hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Lewes (Norman Baker) and by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) and for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). It is a shame that, because of today's circumstances, more Members were not present.

I said in previous debates that the Government would try to find an opportunity to discuss sustainability and climate change in the context of Gleneagles. Today's debate provides that opportunity. I certainly take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North that, by tradition, if not by right, annual debates are part of the business programme of the House. I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that sustainability should be the subject of such a debate. It is a matter for business managers, but I shall certainly ensure that my hon. Friend's views are known.

I shall try to answer some of the points raised in the debate before dealing with sustainability. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, perhaps not unreasonably, that, if the Government bring forward strategies on sustainable development, there must be some measure of delivery. I do not disagree.

The latest strategy, "Securing the Future" is incredibly detailed. It deals with a number of points, including some mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewes. In terms of measurement of delivery, we have the indicators. He did not mention that each Department has public service agreement targets and that we increasingly share such targets. On the point that he made on air quality and CO 2 from transport, we have a shared PSA target with the Department for Transport. That means that both Departments are obliged to make progress on those targets, which is welcome. Co-operation between the Departments is good, and I shall say more about that in a moment.

The development of the sustainable communities plan is a genuine attempt to address the need for more homes, particularly in the south and south-east, where demand is focused: that is where the population is, where the jobs are and where economic growth is to be found. It is not the only place. There is demand for jobs and homes in other parts of the country, including the Corby growth area.

We heard of the demolition of homes that cannot be sold or let. The argument was presented in a rather rose-tinted way—that they are nice, Victorian terraces. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North that they are not always nice; they are sometimes pretty nasty Victorian terraces.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings would be mistaken to think that it is only about Victorian terraces. Many homes that cannot be let or sold are 1960s concrete, prefabricated developments. I do not know whether he has been to some of the areas where there is a problem with hard-to-let and hard-to-sell houses. I certainly have. They include the no-fines houses that were popular in the 1960s but are now riddled with damp, black mould and all sorts of problems. A range of constructional techniques were used, including in my constituency. In some homes, the walls are crumbling away and the tie bars are corroding. There are all sorts of difficulties with life-expired homes and not all of them are Victorian, some of which tended to be better built.

When such homes can be refurbished, they are. In Frodingham village in my constituency, terraced homes that were built for steelworkers did not have bathrooms but they have been refurbished, had extensions built and bedrooms turned into bathrooms. It is a very nice environmental development and popular, although the refurbishment has provided for two bedrooms. Homes with two bedrooms are not altogether popular with families, as those of us who meet at our advice surgeries people who are looking for homes know well. Such homes have a role to play, but they are not the answer in all circumstances. Sometimes, the cost of refurbishment is far higher than the cost of new build. Some of the problems are to do not with the houses, but with the design, the area and the nature of the community, which can be remodelled when there is demolition.

It surprises me, but I hear now and again that some people living in such homes do not want to move and to see their homes demolished. When I was a city councillor in Hull in 1979, we still had a slum clearance programme in my ward. Those homes had no proper facilities and were in very poor condition, yet people did not want to leave them. There is a lesson there for all of us. It is about communities. Little thought was given to the nature of communities when large-scale redevelopment took place in the 1960s and 1970s. We need to learn those lessons and I believe that we have.

The Government have a target of building on 60 per cent. brownfield sites. We are exceeding that target and it is likely that we will continue to do so, particularly with growth areas such as the Thames gateway, which is Europe's biggest brownfield site. I appreciate that there are issues of definition of brownfield sites and we can look at those.

There has been some loss of green belt areas, but there has been a net gain of such areas under this Government. That should be borne in mind. Green space is an important part of sustainable communities. My colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister recently announced a policy on the use of green space in growth areas as part of sustainable communities. Using green space for leisure, recreation, sustainability and urban drainage is important.

The role of the Sustainable Development Commission, an independent body chaired by Jonathon Porritt, has been strengthened. It will now report directly to the Prime Minister on the monitoring of progress. We also have the Environmental Audit Committee, as my hon. Friends stated.

Photo of John Hayes

John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Transport; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

Just to scotch the Minister's myth about green belt expansion, it is not that the total area of green belt has not expanded since 1997—clearly, it has—but how and where it has expanded. The green belt should be just that: a belt of land around areas where development pressure is greatest. The green belt is expanding into open countryside while towns and cities are being allowed to sprawl into the inner green belt. That is a distortion of the purpose of green belts.

It is true that the targets for brownfield land have been exceeded, but there are two points about that. The target may be too low, and it has in part been exceeded because of the definition of brownfield land, with buildings being crammed into back gardens.

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

That is not the case. The definition of brownfield sites has not changed and the hon. Gentleman's description of how the green belt has expanded is simplistic. Additional areas of green belt have often been included as part of the sustainable growth of communities, both in relation to having a buffer zone and to have some green space in communities. That is important.

The strategy has not led to building in people's back gardens. As I represent a rural area, I accept that that would be a problem. Some people who have big gardens in nice villages are keen to get a house in them. Our policy is not new and is controlled by structure and district plans made by the local authority. My local, Conservative-controlled council is keen on that kind of policy and has overridden the district plan put in place by the Labour authority. The situation is not simple.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about mixed communities. They are important. Such housing provision can be achieved. There is also the issue of prediction. I accept that we should be a bit cautious about predict and provide but, when setting housing strategies, it is important that local authorities and county councils have some idea of what demands there will be for housing in the region. That affects councils' long-term planning for schools, doctors' surgeries and transport. There must be some idea of a figure. We cannot expect those facilities to be expanded in an ad hoc fashion. There must be some planning.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about packaging. It is an issue. The packaging directive has been helpful. Hon. Members should be aware that, for the first time since we have had records on waste, the overall waste stream in this country has declined. I welcome that. Recycling has shot up, from 6 per cent. in 1997 to 18 per cent. in 2004. I believe that we can meet our target of 25 per cent. at the end of 2005–06.

There has been a huge change on the issue. I accept that we have come from a low base compared to other European countries, but we are moving on. I am glad to see those changes. I hope to make an announcement on packaging in relation to retailers in the not-too-distant future. It may be significant. I say to the hon. Gentleman: watch this space.

I understand the points that the hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings and for Lewes, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North made on timber policy. We in this country can be proud of what we have done on timber policy. As I mentioned, we have a procurement policy on sustainable and legal timber. The timber industry has been an enthusiastic supporter of that policy and there have been big changes among the retailers.

To give one example, DEFRA is undergoing extensive modernisation. It is moving to open-plan offices with an atrium. All the timber being used is certified. It happens to be certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council, although there are five schemes that have been recognised by the Central Point of Expertise on Timber. The DEFRA project has involved such a volume of timber that the joinery company doing the work has achieved Forestry Stewardship Council certification. It is the first joinery company to be certified by the FSC. It would not have been able to do that were it not for the volume of timber and the work that we are providing through Government procurement strategies. That project is a tremendous success.

I understand that the point that is being made is that the FSC scheme is not the only certified scheme. To be truthful, at the moment, the FSC could not cover the volume of timber that is being used in this country. The pan-European certification scheme covers many of the softwoods, in particular the Baltic and the Scandinavian ones.

I understand that non-governmental organisations are concerned that, although there is no question about the pan-European scheme meeting the standard on legality, it does not quite meet our criteria on sustainability. That is true. That is why, in the assessment by the Central Point of Expertise on Timber, the scheme did not get the top rating. Since that assessment, the pan-European scheme has talked to CPET and offered to change its criteria. That is remarkable. What the Government are doing might change the criteria of a global certification scheme. Of course, that must be judged against the standards that we have set. ProForest, an independent body, is doing that. We discuss the matter with NGOs regularly, and I have asked that CPET should consult the NGOs to talk about such changes. Is it bad that a scheme with some weaknesses, which is generally recognised to be pretty good, but not ideal, is prepared to address those weaknesses? Should not we encourage that? We will have to see what comes out of the discussions.

Photo of Joan Walley

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North, Labour)

In light of those comments, will the Minister provide me with more detail of where the standards are being met, and where the improvements that he says have been volunteered have been brought in, so that we can measure how fit for purpose the new arrangements are compared to the previous one?

Photo of Elliot Morley

Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Climate Change and Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

That is perfectly reasonable. That work is under way. I note my hon. Friend's question and will make sure that she gets some information on that.

The hon. Member for Lewes said that he offered a consensus in a letter to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. That is okay, as far as it goes, but he knows as well as I that the Government could not sign up to some aspects of that letter. Indeed, even the Opposition could not sign up to some of them. There is an argument for a consensus. I take his point and accept that he is sincere. There may be some areas of our approach that we can examine. There are challenges for all parties if we are serious about moving forward on sustainability and climate change.

I know that the hon. Gentleman loves leaked letters and enjoys quoting from them, but I must say to him that there are, of course, debates within Government. They would be a poor Government who did not debate various issues. If I were in his place, I would take some comfort in the fact that DEFRA is standing up for the issue of sustainability in that debate. In the end, it is the agreed strategy that matters and he will not find much in it with which he disagrees. The Government, not DEFRA, have signed up to that strategy, which was launched by the Prime Minister, and is supported by the Secretaries of State for Education and Skills and for Trade and Industry, and by DEFRA Ministers. It is a cross-Government approach.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about railway lines. It is always easy to close railway lines and hard to reopen them. One line that has reopened, I believe, is the Robin Hood line in Nottinghamshire. One reason for that line's popularity is the National forest. That is a good example of a sustainable strategy that gives an economic benefit, on which I am keen.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about aviation. There may be a delay in the trading scheme, but carbon trade is the most effective way in which to deal with aviation. I do not object if a company that wants to expand buys credits, because they come from somewhere else. It does not really matter where the reduction is, because the issue is a global one. That is one of the advantages of the tradability of carbon. I am keen on that scheme.

There are other solutions to consider, such as a NOx tax—a tax on oxides of nitrogen. BAA already has a price on landing slots linked with noise and NOx. That is effective because it encourages airlines to have newer, quieter, more fuel-efficient planes to get lower prices for landing slots. That is a successful market mechanism, although I accept that there is debate to be had on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North talked about the urgent need to take action and to move on, which I fully support, and the need for a joined-up approach, in relation to which I refer her to the EAC report on sustainability, which we have addressed in some depth.

My hon. Friend made a good point about education and sustainable development. If we are to take a new approach, we need people with design, engineering, manufacturing and building skills to support it. The Government's sustainable procurement strategy is an opportunity to encourage such skills. If a company is trying to develop a market for a greener approach to design, building or production, for example, it is worth while for it to invest in the skills base. The Government also provide support for skills. I welcomed her comments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North mentioned the profile of sustainable development. It certainly has been raised as part of the G8 process and our EU presidency. That has been useful, and I welcome it. He spoke about the Olympic games and the idea of a cross-party approach—again, I like that idea. The Olympic bid included a low-carbon approach; reducing energy demands and meeting them from zero/low carbon and renewable sources; showcasing new designs and sustainable building and design; aiming for zero waste by avoiding landfill in both construction and operation; and conserving biodiversity and improving the quality of urban green space. I am keen on the way that green space has been incorporated in the Olympic bid, and how sustainable urban drainage has been utilised—it is a good example. The bid also covered sustainable transport and the sustainable legacy that I mentioned. Those are all important issues.

WWF-UK and BioRegional were involved in the design of the London 2012 bid. BioRegional is a local charity that promotes sustainable development. I liked the idea of a target of 1 W for the stand-by power limit. We must consider such issues.

My hon. Friend might be interested to know that efficiency standards are on the G8 agenda. I hope that something comes out of that. He mentioned the touchy issue of fuel duty. I had something to say about that during the debate on fuel. I cannot say that my comments were particularly welcome in certain quarters. I say to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings that it is easy to jump on a bandwagon instead of taking an unpopular position on fuel duty. The mark of responsible Governments and Oppositions is that sometimes they do the right thing, even if it is unpopular. Fuel prices have risen significantly because of world prices, and they are unlikely to come down in the near future. As such, there is no need to put the price up with duty, but there is an argument for differential vehicle excise rates, and, to a certain extent, they have been introduced. Changes have also been made to company car taxation. A revenue-neutral approach is important.

There has been discussion about definitions. The strategy document, "Securing the Future", gives a definition of sustainability that is based on the international definition:

"to enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life without compromising the quality of life of future generations."

Page 16 gives more detail about how sustainability is defined, including guiding principles, and clearly outlines the elements of sustainability and a sustainable strategy. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North will find on page 34 a progress report on incentives and green taxation, which is quite comprehensive. He might like to look at that.

"Securing the Future" is an important document. It is a Government document that brings all the Departments together to deliver the overall strategy. I very much welcome this debate. I welcome too the fact that the Government take the issue seriously, and constantly seek to strengthen and to refine our approach and to make it more integrated and effective. That process will continue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Five o'clock.