Housing and planning bill shows national policy making is still short sighted

Sandbags Outside Front Door Of Flooded HouseThis post is by Richard Benwell, head of government affairs at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.

The Greener London report, published last week, is an excellent menu of options for making our capital cleaner, safer and more biodiverse. And, at the Greener London hustings on Friday, we saw mayoral candidates vie with one another over a wide selection of ideas, and over who would commit to finish them faster: solar roofs, safer cycle ways, cleaner air and water. It was great to see the candidates, Sadiq Khan, Sian Berry, Zac Goldsmith and Caroline Pidgeon, competing to make the most environmentally appealing offer to the electorate.

What national policy can learn from Greener London  
What a contrast to last year’s general election, where the environment featured so little in the public debate. It’s also a notable contrast with the national debate taking place in parliament this month, where once again short termism, deregulation and minimising costs to business are winning out over environmental sense. The government should learn from Greener London, for instance on low carbon homes and sustainable urban water management, as it steers the embattled Housing and Planning Bill through parliament.

Greener London recommends “creating 100 new wetlands by 2020” and an “ambitious sustainable drainage action plan” to reduce flood risk, improve water quality and create beautiful places for communities and nature.

Sustainable drainage uses green and blue infrastructure to mimic nature’s way of slowing, storing and cleaning water, reducing the pressure on conventional sewers. For example, the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust’s SuDS for Schools projects demonstrate affordable, sustainable ways to reduce the impacts of flooding, while creating thriving educational environments. In London, which has experienced between 50 and 60 overflows of 39 million tonnes of untreated waste water into the Thames each year, the benefits are apparent.

Still no provision for flood resilience in house building plans
At the national level, the scale of our ambition should be commensurately greater. The Natural Capital Committee found a good economic case for the creation of 100,000 hectares of wetland, and many of the most valuable benefits would be in urban environments.

But the Housing and Planning Bill, which will pave the way for a million new homes by 2020, includes no provision at all for natural resilience to flooding.

In fact, the government has performed a u-turn on legislation put in place in 2010 to require sustainable drainage, arguing that it places too many obstacles to development. This is despite the fact that Defra acknowledges that sustainable drainage is often cheaper than conventional sewerage works, and ignores the added benefits, of biodiversity, water quality and flood mitigation, in the face of increasing risk.

Low carbon homes abandoned despite negligible costs
It’s a similar story on low carbon homes, recommended by Greener London and heartily endorsed by the mayoral candidates last week. The government has discarded its commitment to a zero carbon homes standard by 2016, bowing to the Treasury’s argument that the additional costs would be prohibitive, even though any additional costs are negligible compared with the enormous sums of money involved in house building and are quickly absorbed by savings in household energy bills.

These two examples alone demonstrate the short sightedness that continues to afflict national policy making. Even as individual departments and ministers give us reason to hope for a more environmentally rational view, through initiatives like the 25 year plan for the environment, decisions taking place right now point to business as usual.

Parliament more progressive than government
It’s heartening, then, that parliament often takes a more progressive view than government, including backbenchers on the government’s side of the House.

This week, members of the House of Lords have tabled an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill that would create a strong “carbon compliance standard” for new homes. The minister deflected the amendment, in the face of powerful arguments from across the House, but members have warned that they will return to the question at the Report Stage.

On 22 March, amendment 119 would require the government to bring the 2010 sustainable drainage requirements into force before proceeding with new powers in the Housing Bill.

This amendment was tabled in the name of Lady Parminter, with Lord Krebs, Lord Greaves and Lady Young in support. Several Conservative peers expressed their backing in earlier stages of the bill.

Both these amendments add up to impressive, cross-party support for greener, more resilient homes, showing that parliament isn’t always happy to let the government backtrack on its environmental commitments.

So, as the London mayoral race continues, let’s hope that the green race continues alongside. And let’s hope, too, that national policy makers listen to the resounding public applause for the ideas heard at the hustings.

@RichardSBenwell

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