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Examination of Witness

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:27 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Rico Wojtulewicz gave evidence.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 4:00 pm, 10th March 2020

I apologise for the delay, which was due to Divisions in the House. I am afraid there may be a Division on Third Reading as well, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it. Good afternoon, Mr Wojtulewicz. For the benefit of the record, please identify yourself and the organisation that you represent.

Rico Wojtulewicz:

My name is Rico Wojtulewicz. I am head of housing and planning policy at the National Federation of Builders and the House Builders Association.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you very much. I apologise again for keeping you waiting.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q Good afternoon. Before our break, we were talking about local nature recovery strategies. There is obviously a requirement in the Bill to have regard to such strategies in planning, but not a duty to use them. Do you feel that that is likely to translate into clear requirements on developers, or might there need to be some clarification in the Bill about how that might proceed?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

Clarity would be very helpful. Developers really struggle with wishy-washy comments from planners and local authorities that perhaps do not have an established strategy that they can follow. That is definitely one of our concerns about this sort of approach. It is really important that developers can be part of the strategy and are not asked to deliver somebody else’s strategy. That is vital going forward.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q In the context of recovery strategies, one suggestion is that permissions for, say, residential building could require a target of a specified percentage of canopy cover on developments. As a number of people have said, it is significant that the section in the Bill on trees deals with cutting them down but is silent on planting them. Do you think that a target for a specified percentage of canopy cover on developments might be welcome among builders if it could be incorporated into plans in a clear way?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

Ideally, yes. The difficulty is that every site will be very different, so if you specify a particular type of site, it might be quite difficult. In somewhere like London, where you desperately want an increased density, if you specify a particular type of canopy cover, it might be very difficult to deliver that, whereas in somewhere like Cornwall you might be able to deliver increased canopy cover with less concern.

It also depends on the type of canopy cover that you are looking at. If, as part of your biodiversity strategy, you know that you would like to encourage a particular type of species to visit that site, and maybe encourage a nature network to improve, you need to know what species of tree or plant you would like to use. That information is very scant, which is a real difficulty for developers. The majority of the people I represent are small and medium-sized builders, although we have some larger ones, and they win work on reputation, so a good site is vital. That is almost part of the sales pitch in the end, but unless you have that feed-in knowledge it is very difficult.

We work with an organisation called the Trees and Design Action Group, with which we have been partnered for a while. It produces a document called “Trees in Hard Landscapes”. That allows us a better idea about what we can do on sites. That expertise is not necessarily shared across the wider industry and specifically among local planning authorities.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Welcome. Thank you very much for coming. I know that many house builders have already done some really excellent work on biodiversity and net gain, voluntarily, off their own bat. What is your view about mandating it to get environmental improvement? Do you think the 10% specified in the Bill is the right level?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

I honestly could not—I do not think anyone could—give an honest answer to that. When we were approached, we welcomed biodiversity net gain because we recognise it is vital. We recognised that 10% might feel like an arbitrary figure, but if it is deliverable, why should developers not go for it?

We are at the start of understanding what we can deliver and how. I can give three perfect examples of that. We have the great crested newt district licensing scheme, which has only really come to fruition in the past few years. We worked with Natural England on that. That eDNA tests newts in a local area, which means you do not have to do a ginormous survey. That is a very new technology and has only just been introduced. Two other ones are bee bricks and swift bricks. Those allow more bees and swifts to visit a site and be part of the network of biodiversity on that site. Those are new technologies. It seems amazing that we could not incorporate those before in developments, but we are really at the early stages.

From our point view—whenever I speak to our members—we will do as much as needs be, as long as there is an industry out there. If you look at ecologists, do we have enough ecologists in local authorities to offer advice and guidance? Do we have the right network of information, so that it is simple and easy to use—so that all developers, whether self-build or building 2,000 homes, can understand what to deliver on site to reduce the burden on professional ecologists, who might want to tailor a scheme to make it unique.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q The Bill is a framework Bill, so the 10% is signalling that this is the direction of travel. I just want to hear you say whether you are pleased about that. Is there a good direction of travel? All the nitty-gritty about exactly what you are asking will be set in the regulations and secondary legislation, and I hope you will put into that. I have met lots of house builders, and my impression is that they welcome this because it signals a paradigm shift in the way our development will go.

Rico Wojtulewicz:

Broadly yes, but of course, again, it is site specific. Not every site can deliver. There will still be exemptions, and that is part of the Bill. Small sites have not been exempt, and we do not want them to be. This should be uniform across the whole industry, and we should all be trying to have an ambition. If that ambition is 10%, it is 10%, but Government and partners must do all they can to assist builders to deliver that, preferably on site rather than off site.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q Currently, the Bill is not explicit enough about irreplaceable habitats. There is some concern about unique habitats, which can be paved over, as long as developers can show net gain overall. How well founded are those concerns?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

As far as I understand it, protected habitats will remain protected. The work we have done with Natural England identifies that. They have been very keen for us to ensure that that occurs. Small developers will typically be the ones who are delivering on those sites more often than the larger house builders, because they might lose one particular site within a larger site. A lot of the larger developers specifically will be delivering on agricultural land. It is on those smaller plots of land that there perhaps may be more danger of those protected wildlife sites being lost. We think that Natural England will put the right protections in place so that it cannot just be offset.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Conservative, Meriden

Q Following on from the Minister’s question, I would like a bit more clarity. I understand that the biodiversity net gain concept is being embraced, and you welcome that. It is a minimum of 10%, so there is potential, if a developer wants to go higher than 10%, that they can do that. As a federation, you are not against that; you are embracing that. Am I clear about that?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

Yes, absolutely. If we can go higher, we will. Help us to get there.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

Q The Bill creates space, as you said, for local nature recovery strategies, which can be used in both the planning and development phases. During those phases, who will have responsibility for ensuring that those strategies are being followed?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

We assume it will be the local authorities, with their guidance and local plans. We hope it will be. All developers really want is clarity.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

Q And you are not finding it in the Bill as yet?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

No, we are not. The difficulty is that you need to ask yourself whether a local authority really knows what it wants to deliver and how it wants to deliver it. The Bill can say whatever it likes if local authorities cannot deliver it and do not understand how to deliver it. We do not even have the right information; for example, we do not know what migratory flightpath certain birds might take. How can you deliver all that without having all the information first? That is where the Bill has to be a developing document that changes, because at this stage it is the first step to understanding how we can deliver something really special.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Q On that point about the importance of clarity, as an ex-councillor myself I understand the differences between local authorities when it comes to the planning process, although there are guidelines, such as the national planning policy framework and so on, that they can refer to. This is a framework Bill, as the Minister has already said, and it shows the direction of travel. One important point is the consistency that will be established between local authorities, and the mandatory net gain. Will that be helpful for developers? Can you outline the opportunities that you think your sector can gain from that direction of travel?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

The duty to co-operate between local authorities will be vital. You cannot control where a particular species will be migrating, moving or living, so that is really important for the development industry. If we look at something such as a wildlife corridor, which could stretch across a few local authorities, some people would perhaps say we should not build on any of that wildlife corridor, but we do not necessarily take that view.

We think that, depending on the species that utilise the wildlife corridor, we could be part of improving the opportunities for them to utilise it, such as by undercutting hedgerows or raising hedges so that hedgehogs can travel across the entire site. Perhaps there is a particular type of bird that utilises that corridor. How can you encourage more of that biodiversity in the plants you plant? Is it food? Is the right type of lighting used to attract them? Maybe you have a particular type of bat that does not like a particular type of lighting.

Developers can be part of that and encourage it, to ensure that we are delivering a better network. The difficulty always is that the minute a developer is announced as being part of any wildlife stretch, corridor or site—even just an agricultural piece of land that perhaps does not have strong biodiversity—the automatic reaction is, “This is going to be damaging for biodiversity.” It does not necessarily have to be.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Q Does that mean that there is an opportunity there for the sector to up its game a little bit in how it demonstrates, particularly to people at a parish council level, how they can enhance the natural environment? I am thinking particularly of more rural areas, where you have developments going up on the edge of a village. That can be very contentious, as I am sure you are aware, but if developers were given the opportunity to say, “Because of this legislation, we are now going to do this,” do you think that would potentially help those relationships?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

Yes, in a perfect world, but not always, because local parish councils perhaps become set in their ways in believing that a particular thing will damage their area. A great example that you mentioned there is building on the edge of a village. We would love to be able to build on the edge of a village. Unfortunately, opposition from parish councils is so strong that many developments end up going quite far away from the parish. Then people say, “Now we don’t have the right infrastructure in place.” That is because if you are building, say, 20 homes in a community, you may get more opposition than if you are building 200 on the outskirts.

So, yes, while that could be the case, it has to be about accepting that developers are trying to do the best thing, and not simply about having extra regulations or extra ideas put on top of them. When you go back to the beginning of the planning process, we already have the issue whereby 30 homes can take three years to get permission, and 500 homes three miles away might take six months. You think to yourself that you want the homes and you want more dense communities so you can use these bus services, and maybe even train services, and you get better commercial opportunities, but you are not really understanding the process for that. So, yes, hopefully.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Mr Wojtulewicz—if I have pronounced your name correctly.

Rico Wojtulewicz:

Perfect.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q Thank you for joining this session. For all of us, housing and planning is such a massive constituency interest and concern. My experience of the past 10 years as MP is that, time and time again, developers appear to have been behind the curve. When you look at the provision of broadband, so often houses were built without it. When we look at solar panels, the same thing. Electric charging, the same thing again.

There are outstanding exceptions to that. For example, a housing association called Rooftop based in Evesham has done some things in my constituency that are largely social and affordable housing that have solar panels and electric charging points. However, it is not always the norm and the Bill seems to me to open the way for house builders and developers to think proactively about what sort of contribution they can make to a net zero carbon future. How do you think this Bill might help house builders and developers adopt that approach and come up with creative ideas that deliver the homes we want while boosting the goals of this Bill to protect and improve the environment?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

I will take each one of those individually. If you are trying to put broadband into a site, you may ensure that you can have high-speed broadband throughout the whole site. It is not your job to be the BT or the Openreach of that world. You cannot connect that site, typically. It is more difficult to do that and, especially in rural communities, there are smaller groups living there. You can make sure your site is broadband ready but somebody else has to connect it.

We had the same issues with electric charging points. Many of our members have had to pay for substations to be put in when, effectively, the energy company was making money in perpetuity. Mr Graham said contributions: it is not contribution, it is cost. It is increasing the value of the property and increasing delays. We need a strategy for local authorities to do a better job of understanding where those areas will be connected and why.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q Just to be clear, that does risk sounding a bit like “Well, we’re not going to do that sort of thing because it all costs us a little bit of money and our profits will be reduced slightly.” Looking at the salary of Persimmon’s chief executive, one wonders whether all of that story is necessarily accurate. Don’t you think there is a case for house builders to get ahead of the curve and do things that everybody wants to see and people expect in their houses now, and if they have got it already, their houses would be more popular and sell for more money?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

In essence, you may be correct, but if you have built a site that is high-speed broadband ready and Openreach cannot come in to connect that site for two years, and they are the only provider available—

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q That is a separate issue, isn’t it?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

It is a key issue.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q What we are talking about is retrofitting on developments that were not ready.

Rico Wojtulewicz:

No, it is not retrofitting, it is connecting the initials.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q I am encouraging you, Mr Wojtulewicz, to look at the positive opportunities for your members and for you to identify what they are, rather than complaining about the additional cost that might be involved.

Rico Wojtulewicz:

You cannot separate the two because it is not necessarily about the cost. The cost is also in delay. It would be great in a perfect world, but if you have to connect that site up and nobody can move into that site unless it is connected up and you have to wait for somebody to connect it up for you, that is a delay that ends up being a cost. You may have to pay council tax on each one of those properties until it is inhabited. The cost—you cannot separate the two. It would be great if we could. It would be great if we had all the right opportunities in place.

I will pick on solar panels as a great example. Many of our members install solar panels. It is easy for housing associations to do that because they maintain the site themselves. When a developer does it, we have no issue about putting in solar panels, but when we look at it, we say: “Wouldn’t it be better for that money to be contributed to a district scheme where the maintenance is either done centrally by the developer or the local authority takes it over, so that in five or 10 years’ time, those solar panels are maintained and can also be replaced?”. If it is a homeowner’s choice to do that, we find that they do not get replaced or maintained and are not part of the fabric of the building. That is why in the part L regulation on energy efficiency, we encouraged using the money that might be used to enforce solar panels to be used on a district system, because solar panels themselves are an add-on, not part of the fabric. If they are part of the fabric, absolutely, but this is not a cost. What you are asking is: “How can we retrofit solar panels in the future?” We need to have an energy system that works for that neighbourhood so that we have local energy generation.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q Do you want to have one last go very briefly at identifying what opportunities you see from the clarity of the Environment Bill on house building or carry on with a series of negative comments?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

If you accept the realities of what I have said, absolutely. The opportunity also needs to be strategic. If local authorities can play into the strategy of their neighbourhood, there are many opportunities to deliver cleaner air by having electric chargers; to ensure that broadband is better connected; and that we have local energy generation because house builders are playing their part. Those are the fantastic opportunities that we need to have a conversation about and how we deliver them, and not simply put it on the developer, because it is not as deliverable as you might think it is.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q We will interpret that as meaning that your members are ready to play their part.

Rico Wojtulewicz:

To play their part, yes.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q On a slightly different topic, the question of building waste wood in the waste stream has been a live issue for quite a while, and the extent to which legislation should be introduced to ban waste wood from the waste stream—that is, other things need to be done to it higher up the waste hierarchy. That issue particularly involves wood that has been used in building. Very often builders just put their wood in waste streams when they have finished building the property or properties. Do you have a view on that? Do you think legislation is required, possibly in this Bill, to ensure that that wood does not go into the waste stream and is used higher up the hierarchy or are there things the building industry could do to make sure it does not happen?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

It is definitely not my expertise, but if it is a real concern, the industry would support measures to ensure that that does not occur.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

To go back to the 10% target, I thought you were being quite enthusiastic about quite a lot that could be done from the house builders’ side of things. As parliamentary species champion for the swift, I was glad that you mentioned swift boxes, which are great, but there has been a 57% decline in swift breeding pairs since 1995, according to the RSPB. That is just one example, but if you look at biodiversity loss across the board, some people would argue that 10% is only really keeping things at a standstill. Do you feel that if you were pushed to do more, you would be able to respond and try to meet a higher target? If a 20% target was in the Bill, what would be needed from your point of view to enable you to help with thatQ ?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

Guidance on what we could do to increase the swift population, such as on what trees and food they might like and what lights do and don’t attract the food that they enjoy eating. All these little things actually make a big difference. If that knowledge is there, it feels quite isolated. I think we are very enthusiastic about the things we can do, which will effectively make our sites better at delivering what people want.

The difficulty is that sometimes politicians perhaps do not understand the development process and what occurs. We in the development industry need to ensure that we have a greater understanding of what we can do on site. Perhaps you would have a particular target in an area that you know would encourage more swifts. Perhaps you could issue specific guidance for that local authority, as part of the network.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I think Brighton and Hove has just done it, and Exeter. I am working on Bristol.

Rico Wojtulewicz:

They have. I am from Brighton.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q On the skills side, it is one thing for a developer to bring in an ecologist or someone to advise on these measures at the smaller scale of things. To what extent is any of this taught at construction college? Should it be? Should we teach builders about biodiversity and things that grow, instead of just teaching them about bricks and mortar?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

I think that is a really good point. The majority of our members are small and medium-sized, where someone might be a bricklayer one day and a site manager the next. They are trained to a high level—typically level 3, with more of them taken on than level 2. This is absolutely an opportunity to ensure that the education is there, not only because it would allow for better building approaches but because it would reduce the burden on a local authority always to have an expert. The more that the development industry can do to deliver what we can, the better. That means that local authorities can be certain that what is being delivered is correct and right for their local area. That is a great idea, and it would absolutely have the support of the National Federation of Builders.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

We will have one final, brief question from Saqib Bhatti.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Conservative, Meriden

Q Building on whether it is 10% or 20%, the fact of the matter is that, whether for the house-building industry or other industry, the tier 1 suppliers and operators lead innovation and set the standards that trickle down through the industry. Certainly, if a single small business of constructors achieves a net biodiversity gain of 10%, that will not trickle up immediately. It will take time. Is it not better to have a minimum of 10%, letting those who want to do more to do so and letting the skills from tier 1 guys, like Barratt Homes, who have been doing this, trickle through and become the industry standard?

Rico Wojtulewicz:

No, I think you actually have that the wrong way around. It is the small and medium-sized companies that push this information up. We see that with bricks such as swift bricks, which were not developed by Barratt but by some smaller organisation that thought, “Can we utilise these on site?” Many of our members are now considering how to use a SUDS—sustainable urban drainage systems—pond to encourage better wildlife and better sites.

A lot of innovation comes from the bottom. Berkeley Homes is a great example of a company that really pushes to innovate. However, look at—I mentioned part L earlier—the use of air source heat pumps, which is a great way to decarbonise our grid. The majority of people using them are small and medium-sized developers. Many of our members use them. They have perhaps historically not been used as much on the very large sites.

There is a part to play for both, but we typically get into this idea that it is always the big boys helping the rest, whereas I actually think it might be the other way round. Having more education for builders is a good example. Four or five construction apprentices could be trained by a small or medium-sized developer. If they take on more level 3 apprentices, they would probably have a better knowledge than the level 2s. Already you can see that the skills element is filtering up, not down.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Mr Wojtulewicz, thank you very much indeed for enlightening us with the information you have given the Committee, to enhance our understanding. Thank you also for your patience in staying with us during the Divisions. We are most grateful to you. Can we now have a swift change of team, please, for the final session of the afternoon?