HC Deb 04 December 1996 vol 286 cc974-95

11 am

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to introduce a brief debate on sustainable development. On anything other than a short-term view, the challenge of sustainable development—a hitherto unobtainable and, until recently, unsought goal—is the supreme issue for politicians all over the world. Unfortunately, democracies are better at responding to urgent problems that are likely to come to a head before the next election, usually a maximum of four or five years away. That is understandable, but disappointing, because the aim of sustainability is very real for all of us with children and grandchildren who will suffer if it is not achieved. A hundred years from now, when the small print of the Maastricht treaty will long have been forgotten, the happiness and health of billions of people will have been decided by the action or inaction of Governments today around the world on sustainability.

The importance of sustainable development is easy to understand. One does not need to be a scientist to realise that, if Britain continues to use countryside for new buildings and roads at the rate of almost 17,000 acres a year, we will concrete over the equivalent of the whole of Suffolk in 50 years. We are urbanising the countryside at an unsustainable rate. If we continue to prefer cars to other forms of transport, the level of traffic using British roads will double in 50 years—another unsustainable trend. If carbon dioxide emissions worldwide continue to grow at their present rate, thereby increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, significant and possibly damaging changes in the world's climate will occur before the end of the next century.

From the comfortable perspective of a rich western country, the tensions caused by unsustainable growth may seem remote, but it is precisely because in Britain, in Europe, in North America and in parts of the Asia-Pacific region we do not have to confront daily the problems of starvation and disease—and because we are no longer preoccupied with securing the basic essentials of life—that we should take the lead in examining where present patterns of consumption are leading. It is up to us to demonstrate how the world can convert its present obsession with economic growth, as defined in today's narrow terms, into a commitment to sustainable development which represents the only way to secure prosperity and a decent quality of life for the human race in the long term.

I should emphasise that I approach the subject in a spirit of optimism. I am confident that the urgency of the problem will soon be widely recognised, certainly within the next generation. Once that recognition has occurred, human ingenuity and resourcefulness are such that the real issues will be addressed and solutions found. I am also acutely aware of the danger of describing the issues in excessively apocalyptic terms. The remedies do not all necessarily lie in sudden, dramatic or costly changes of policy. Greater care in the use of irreplaceable resources is one absolute prerequisite. More co-operation between Governments and countries on global issues is another. Both those aims are justified in themselves, regardless of their role in securing sustainability.

We also need a better understanding and better measurements of the environmental consequences of economic activity. All those requirements can be met. We should tackle the whole subject on a gradual, step-by-step basis with the "no regrets" principle uppermost in mind. Adopting that approach, I propose to deal this morning with four themes—three are largely domestic and one is global. Because of the supreme importance of the subject, I intend to seek further opportunities between now and the general election to return to it and to examine in more detail those aspects that time will not permit us to deal with today. I make no apology for that.

Sadly, the issues are not likely to feature prominently in the general election in the spring. Indeed, there is little evidence that the Labour party has thought about them at all, but they are of great relevance to our constituents and to the welfare of those future generations of British people with whom the House should be concerned.

As it happens, next year is the fifth anniversary of the Rio Earth summit. The United Nations is marking that with another Earth summit, two months after the Commission on Sustainable Development meets in New York. Britain should be in the lead, as it was under Margaret Thatcher, in taking forward environmental initiatives and in influencing international policy. There is now a real opportunity for the House to generate ideas, to engage the attention of the public and the media and to devise solutions to problems that affect all parts of the globe.

I shall consider first land use here in the United Kingdom. I welcome last week's Green Paper, "Household Growth," as a worthwhile document which deserved a better response than it received from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) who, I regret to say, displayed his usual ignorance and shallowness. Only a party leader as utterly uninterested in the environment as the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) could entrust such a crucial portfolio to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras.

I especially welcomed the acknowledgement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, in response to my intervention last Monday, that the present rate at which rural land is converted for urban use is unsustainable. An average of 17,000 acres of rural land has been urbanised annually since 1981. The challenge is to stop that gradual but unacceptable transformation of our much cherished countryside without completely freezing the evolutionary process that historically has created such a rich tapestry in villages and towns alike. A limited degree of new development in the countryside is an integral component of any thriving rural economy, but it can all too easily expand to the point at which it inflicts serious environmental damage.

The Government's target of meeting half of all new housing needs by building on land that was previously developed is excessively modest, not least because that ratio has already nearly been achieved. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested raising that target to 60 per cent. I urge him to set a goal of meeting three quarters of all new housing need from recycled land—brown-field sites—within four years. No doubt that would cause some concern to the building industry, whose preference for green-field sites on grounds of cost, convenience and saleability is well known, but the potential to use more brown-field sites exists. Derelict land can be made good. Outdated, empty offices are ripe for conversion to residential occupation, and there are countless other examples. To exploit that potential more fully, the planning system and the market must both be harnessed.

In relation to out-of-town shopping developments, I applaud the Government's emphasis on a sequential process within the planning system. That requires consideration of alternative sites, first within town centres and then elsewhere in existing built-up areas, before approval of a green-field site can be given.

The same approach can be applied to housing. Planning guidance should emphasise the fact that consent will not be given for housing on any green-field site unless the applicant can demonstrate that all available alternatives—including the conversion of existing premises and the reuse of brown-field sites, even those that contain derelict or contaminated land—have been considered and are genuinely unsuitable for reasons other than mere cost.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

Raising the proportion to 60 or 70 per cent. on a national basis may be practicable, but to do so for every shire county might be difficult. I speak of Somerset, which I know reasonably well, whose relatively small towns do not have the brown-field sites that exist in the great conurbations. Yet it is to places such as Somerset—and, indeed, Suffolk—that people are trying to move their businesses and homes.

Mr. Yeo

I accept that it may not be possible to apply the target at micro-level to every district planning authority, and that to achieve the 75 per cent. target that I suggested we would need to consider a broader distribution of the way in which housing need is met, but only by imposing a national target can we ensure that the effects trickle down through the system and provide enough pressure and incentives for developers to consider ways of meeting housing needs other than the use of green-field sites.

I fully understand that demand from consumers is now strongly oriented towards the rural areas. That is unsustainable in itself, and what I have suggested would enable us to reorient the demand a little. If we approached planning matters in that way, we could make the planning system a genuine guardian of land that needs protection.

That should be backed up by a levy payable on any new green-field development, which would encourage developers to consider the alternatives more carefully. For example, a levy of £60,000 per hectare would generate more than £200 million a year even if the present rate of green-field development were halved. It would increase the price of a new house on a quarter-acre green-field site by £6,000, thus making alternative property relatively more attractive. To sweeten the pill, part of the proceeds could be applied to restoring derelict land.

Much is already happening to make our transport policy more sustainable. Railway privatisation, of which I have long been an enthusiastic supporter, is the first and long overdue step towards rebuilding a golden age of rail, which should reverse the long-term decline in the railways' share of passenger and freight movement.

I welcome the Budget changes in fuel and vehicle excise duties, which give a valuable environmental tweak to the taxation system for cars and lorries. However, the changes need to be taken further if the increase in carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles is to be reduced sufficiently. Other measures are also needed to cut congestion, pollution and overcrowding on certain roads at peak times.

The publication in March of the excellent document "Indicators of Sustainable Development" drew attention to the relative fall in the cost of car use compared with rail or bus travel. Doubling the annual real increase in petrol duty to 10 per cent. would at least redress the balance slightly. Higher rates of vehicle excise duty for high-consumption cars, a change that could be introduced on a revenue-neutral basis by lowering the duty on more economical models, would encourage fuel efficiency.

At the same time, the recent decline in cycling could be reversed by allowing expense claims to be paid, tax-free to the recipient and at a rate comparable to that paid for cars, for the use of bicycles for business purposes.

The problem of congestion cannot be overcome by building more roads, which simply encourages extra traffic. Instead, a limited road pricing experiment—for example, charging users of the M25 during rush hours—should be tried. The technology now exists for road pricing to be operated without complicated or time-consuming vehicle checks.

Rural dwellers for whom a car is an unavoidable necessity would not be penalised. Their roads would not be subject to any pricing. But drivers of gas-guzzling vehicles who insist on using key roads at peak periods would certainly pay more. The prize would be less pollution and congestion. and much less demand for additional roads as better use of the existing network was made by spreading demand throughout the day.

My third concern, energy efficiency, is a subject in which the "no regrets" principle applies par excellence. It unites environmental and economic goals. It is astonishing that so little attention is now paid to energy efficiency both by individual householders and by the public sector.

Households are responsible for 16 per cent. of carbon dioxide emissions in the United Kingdom. We must make all householders aware of what they can do to cut energy costs. One way, as I suggested in my ten-minute Bill last summer, would be to include an energy rating in all house surveys carried out for purchasers when mortgages are arranged.

Few people buy a home without being aware of its council tax band, yet hardly any buyers know how energy-efficient their perspective homes are, despite the fact that fuel costs almost always far outweigh council tax payments. The anomaly could be corrected by simple legislation, and from the results of a comprehensive survey of major lending institutions that I carried out after introducing my Bill it is clear that the lending industry would be perfectly happy to see such legislation.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment will know of the great disappointment felt last week when the Budget did not cut the rate of VAT on energy-saving equipment to the 8 per cent. charged on domestic fuel. I acknowledge his Department's achievement in winning extra resources in a difficult year for the Energy Saving Trust. Regrettably, however, there remains an anomaly in the VAT system, which now offers an incentive for energy consumption rather than energy saving.

I must ask why there has been so long a delay in producing the energy efficiency figures for the Government estate. According to the Library, the latest published data relate to the year ending March 1994. That is disgraceful. The targets set for Government Departments were modest enough, and it is inexcusable that progress towards them is not being regularly and publicly monitored. The only conclusion to be drawn is that the Government do not regard those targets as important.

I must mention global warming, an issue to which I hope to return in the new year. Global warming is no longer simply a possibility: it is now beyond doubt that the world's climate is changing as a result of human activity.

For us in Britain, the consequences will not be a happy transformation of our present weather pattern into an agreeable Mediterranean climate. Temperatures will certainly rise, perhaps by 1 deg C over the next 50 years. But sea levels will also rise, storms will become more frequent, and both flooding and drought are likely to increase in some parts of Britain. So not all the changes will be beneficial. Many will have far-reaching implications for crop yields, river flows and demand for water.

The consequences for some other countries will be even more dramatic. Furthermore, even if the world succeeds in stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases, some of the trends, such as rising sea levels, may continue for several generations.

Britain has played a distinguished role both in achieving wider understanding of climate change and its consequences and in influencing international responses. We are on target to achieve the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000—indeed, we may well improve on that target—but we should now look beyond 2000. The last meeting of the parties to the UN convention on climate change agreed in principle that legally binding targets should be set for the years after 2000, but did not decide what those targets should be.

Time is not on our side. If the long-term aim is to limit the increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases to a level double that reached in the pre-industrial age—in other words, to double the level that has prevailed throughout almost the whole of the earth's history—a substantial cut in carbon dioxide emissions will be needed, perhaps a halving of present levels of emissions. It is simply not credible to suppose that that will be achieved by present policies. Britain should be in the forefront of initiating debate both about the targets for the next century and about how to reach them. Our voice in this debate will be heard more clearly if we build on all the existing measures, and those that I have suggested in my speech, while considering others.

The possibility of a carbon tax has become caught up in the arguments about whether any taxes should be imposed by the European Union on member states. That is a pity, because a carbon tax has, in principle, much to recommend it. Its potential contribution to the process of curbing carbon dioxide emissions deserves to be examined on its merits, and these should be reconsidered. There are other possibilities, notably the use of tradeable quotas. Like a carbon tax, tradable quotas have the immense advantage of providing flexible market incentives for environmentally responsible behaviour. They reward people who find cheaper and more effective methods of reducing emissions.

There is much more that could be said on this subject, but I would like the other hon. Members present in the Chamber to have a chance to contribute to the debate. My purpose today in raising this issue has been to try to give sustainable development a higher parliamentary profile. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will assure us that my suggestions will at least be carefully considered.

11.21 am
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

I am pleased that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) has sought and won the opportunity to debate this important subject, and I overwhelmingly agree with his comments. He was right to say that the problems can be tackled, and that they will be tackled above all by harnessing people's ingenuity. The irony is that most of the problems that we face are the results of previous ingenuity in overcoming previous problems. The hunt for warmth, shelter, food, easy transport and communications have led to new problems, but exactly the same ingenuity will help us to overcome them. There are ways in which the Government can have a hand in encouraging the exercise of that ingenuity.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk referred to four key themes, and I shall seek to follow briefly the points that he has made. The first—land use—is perhaps the area in which the impact of environmental problems is most immediate to ordinary individuals in this country. They see it in their view, in the traffic jam in which they sit and in the increasing asthma attacks suffered by their children, which are linked to air pollution.

In that context, the issue of household growth is probably the one that will be highest on the agenda of many politicians as we come to the next general election. In my part of the world, people are greatly concerned about the high level of proposed building in the countryside. I am not sure whether they make the connection with the wider environmental issues touched on by the hon. Member for South Suffolk, but it is an issue that they will be taking up with their local Member of Parliament.

In this context, sustainability versus large-scale household growth is a central dilemma as we approach the end of the century. The problems will be compounded by the fact that the demand for housing and the readily available sites that we might wish to see developed do not often occur in the same place. Urban areas are often enthusiastic about new development on brown-field sites, but demand is likely to be strongest in more rural areas.

Furthermore, one-person households are expected to make up 80 per cent. of the expected 4.4 million new households. It is therefore inevitable that there will be an increase in the number of houses being converted into flats and bed-sits. That raises further social issues that I should like to see the Government address through a national licensing scheme to sort out the appalling living standards in much of that kind of accommodation. The net benefit of tackling that problem will be that more people might be willing to live in that kind of accommodation, particularly in urban centres. That will regenerate those centres and help stop the continuing erosion of our countryside.

The first step in tackling the problem must surely be to use what we have. I am disappointed that so little mention has been made of the thousands of empty properties across the country—some 800,000 in England alone. I should like the Government to provide sufficient funding to make better use of that wasted resource, rather than the small and piecemeal funding that they provide at the moment. It must be madness to contemplate building millions of new homes without first making an effort to bring into use all those empty buildings.

The next step must be to encourage development on previously developed land. Last week, the Secretary of State for the Environment stated that in future he wanted the proportion of new houses built on brown-field sites to increase from 50 to 60 per cent. That was a welcome statement, but without any real incentives I fear that it is unlikely to happen. It is suggested that the Secretary of State has looked at, and may even favour, introducing a green-field tax of the sort outlined by the hon. Member for South Suffolk to promote brown-field site development. I should like to see that step being taken, and I should have liked to see it in the Budget. I hope that such a tax will be introduced in the future. It is a policy that the Liberal Democrats have long advocated, and I hope that it will be specifically introduced during consultation.

Several attempts have been made to introduce taxes based on the increase in the value of land that results from the acceptance of planning applications. Such betterment taxes have in the past been justified on the grounds that as the community creates a fortuitous gain for the landowner by granting planning permission, it should therefore share the benefits by cutting taxes that currently fall on the things that we do want, such as local jobs and businesses. That could help pay for direct community costs, such as improved public transport, schools and waste recycling, and could provide compensation payments for people directly affected by the decision. The case for such a tax is unarguable, and the sooner the Government introduce it, the sooner we will see a shift towards developments in brown-field sites. The financial incentives will be there, rather than merely the rhetoric and pleadings of local councillors or national politicians.

Incidentally, the market—provided that it is given those incentives, and provided that we structure the tax and planning systems appropriately—will to some extent provide solutions for those problems. I doubt, however, that the market will find solutions for social housing needs, and I regret that Government have again cut the provision of social housing. That has a particular relevance to the development of green-field sites. Local authorities have now been told that they cannot negotiate for an element of affordable housing on sites smaller than 40 units. In my county—and, I suspect, in most rural areas—very few developments are likely to be built on a larger scale than that, particularly in local villages where there is the greatest need for, and the greatest shortage of, social housing.

Councils are being prevented from using capital receipts for such building, and now they cannot negotiate with the developer. If we are to see development on green-field sites, let us make sure it is properly balanced and that it addresses the needs of local communities, rather than simply the needs of people who move out to retire or to commute—precisely the kind of green-field site development that we do not want. I have spoken at some length on that matter because it is probably the most immediate to politicians.

I agree strongly with most of what the hon. Member for South Suffolk said about transport. There is a strong argument for an increase in petrol duty, balanced by incentives for those driving more fuel economic and less polluting vehicles and by changes in the tax system, especially that for company cars, which encourages people to drive larger vehicles unnecessarily and to make unnecessary journeys to maximise their tax benefits. That system is nonsense and can be changed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned bicycles. I would also urge the Government to consider tax relief for individuals who are provided with public transport, in the form of rail season tickets, for example, through their company.

The hon. Gentleman is also right about energy efficiency. I would love the requirement on housing surveys that he suggested to be imposed. I entirely agree with the policy of reducing VAT on energy-saving equipment and my party included it in our Budget proposals. However, I believe that, had there been a vote on the issue last night, it would certainly have been won. I regret that there was no vote, and I believe that the Labour party made a mistake in its motion by not picking that issue, which could have been won, and picking instead an issue for which there may be greater political support but on which it was always likely to lose. I hope that we shall have such a vote in the coming months or, even better, that the Chancellor will propose suitable amendments during the proceedings on the Finance Bill.

I agree with the hon. Member for South Suffolk that global warming is the biggest single threat that we face. It is such a threat because it is the most difficult problem to overcome, as well as being the most serious. Our current lifestyles depend on excessive use of resources, but an even worse problem is the fact that, as 80 per cent. of the world's resources are currently used by only 20 per cent. of the population, if the rest of the population even moves towards standards of life similar to ours, regardless of whether they adopt best environmental practice—which is in itself unlikely, given the costs that can be associated—the current targets set internationally and by the Government will not even begin to contain the situation.

It is important to make people understand that hose problems are a priority. I was extremely pleased to hear what the hon. Member for South Suffolk said about carbon tax, which I have consistently advocated. Tax should be targeted on those energy systems which create the pollution, and other taxes should be cut to make it politically acceptable. For instance, we should cut employers' national insurance—the tax on jobs—to encourage people back to work and to encourage companies to employ people rather than machinery, and we should cut VAT so that people do not have a big net increase in their bills.

All those points concern environmental taxation in one way or another. That was a theme of the speech of the hon. Member for South Suffolk and it has been a theme of mine. There is a huge opportunity for a reforming Chancellor to change the tax system to benefit the environment and individuals and to help people to create warmer homes while using less energy, to get about without creating traffic congestion and pollution, and to be housed without destroying our environment.

By taxing differently, rather than simply increasing taxes, we need not impose a higher burden overall. The Chancellor who introduces such reforms will not only set the agenda for the next century but will be both a reforming and a popular Chancellor.

11.33 am
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on raising an important subject that deserves more attention and more far-sighted debate in the House. He is building on his excellent work as a Minister in the Department of the Environment, and I am glad to see that his interest in such matters has not abated since his return to the Back Benches.

The most urgent problem facing our communities in the next few months is the housing requirements that are being directed at counties throughout southern England, but before dealing with that I want to touch on transport and energy conservation, which were mentioned by both my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk and by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor).

The only dissenting letters about the Budget that I have received in the past week were from pensioners on fixed incomes, living in the countryside and dependent on their cars, who objected to the rise in petrol prices. I have had a good half dozen such letters. I had to explain that we and the Opposition parties are committed to raising the price of petrol continually through taxation.

The hon. Member for Truro and I have had some discussion in the past about the Liberal proposals for counterbalancing tax on petrol. I face a dilemma, and the hon. Gentleman faces a practical problem, because single people or pensioner couples on limited incomes in the countryside will tend to have older cars, which unfortunately, whether small or large—and they are often small—are pretty environmentally unfriendly; that is a shame in itself, but it also means that those people cannot benefit from the discrimination in favour of unleaded petrol.

The other dilemma arises because people in the countryside who have children will almost certainly need a rather larger than average car, especially if they give lifts to their children, to other people's children or to their neighbours. I would like more to be done to help communications in the countryside by encouraging neighbours to help each other by giving lifts. The idea that everyone can be encouraged through tax measures to have small and environmentally friendly cars is therefor subject to these practical difficulties.

I entirely support the encouragement of bicycle use. Taunton, the main town in my constituency, is ideally suited for more use of bicycles, and the Liberal council, with my full support, has done a great deal to encourage it in recent years. There is all-party support in my constituency for the development of cycle tracks and I am delighted to say that we have had considerable financial help from the Government.

On energy conservation, I do not want the Government—any Government—to levy different rates of VAT on different goods and services, as we got away from that in 1979, much to the benefit of small businesses. I therefore do not support the idea of reducing VAT on energy conservation materials to 8 per cent. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk, however, that there should be more support through grants for energy conservation services, as there is much work to be done and I believe that the backlog of work has created a waiting list. We are pleased with the modest increase announced in the Budget, but we shall not relax the pressure for more resources for such work.

The most important issue for my constituents and for most people in southern England is new housing development. Through a conjunction of population planners in London, the South West regional planning conference and others, Somerset was originally threatened with 50,000 new houses over the next decade or decade and a half. Pressures and negotiations may bring that down to about 45,000, but it is still too many. Such development on green-field sites would have implications for the water table and water conservation.

In and near my constituency, it is feared that the sort of development that we face over the next decade will cause the town of Taunton to spill across the M5, swamping the villages of Henlade, Ruishton and even Creech St. Michael, and bringing them into a Greater Taunton. I would greatly regret that. Just over my constituency border, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) has referred to the danger that Bridgwater and North Petherton will join to create a Greater Bridgwater. Few people in the local communities want such development.

We have run up against difficulties with the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food because sites such as Longforth farm to the north-east of Wellington and Monkton Heathfield between the village of that name and the M5 are grade 1 or 2A agricultural land. MAFF has objected to development on such sites even though they would be less intrusive green-field sites and probably appropriate for development in terms of communication and in every other regard. We have a dilemma, although I think that we may be making progress with MAFF.

There is better scope for the sensible development of villages. That would help the village services such as the garage, the post office, the pub and the school which the excellent Local Government and Rating Bill that we are putting through the House is trying to sustain. But there is no point in developers building 1960s or 1970s style large family houses on the edge of villages that have entirely different traditional architecture. The Prince of Wales has taken important initiatives on that. I hope that planning guidance will emphasise that we must develop more sensitive architecture for new village developments.

In my part of England, there are a number of disused airfields dating back to the second world war, some of which may be suitable sites for new villages. There may be scope for closing some of the military bases, where the ground is already developed, on Salisbury plain and turning them into villages. We can show some imagination and initiative to avoid intruding on the green-field sites that we and our constituents are anxious to conserve.

I want to spell out some shorter-term and some longer-term proposals to tackle the problem. They may go against several of the rhetorical and philosophical assumptions that Conservative Members have previously accepted—or at least espoused over the past 20 years. If we do nothing to curb demand for new housing and curb only supply, which is what our county councils and constituents are asking us to do, we will price people artificially out of communities; there will be an artificial house price boom.

We must consider greater use of empty properties, but they tend to be in urban areas and large conurbations. There must be greater use of brown-field sites but as I pointed out to my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk, that is less help to those of us with rural or semi-rural counties to look after.

I want no more intrusion on school playgrounds. We debate the resource problems of schools, but I am glad that even the urban schools in my constituency retain excellent playgrounds, usually right next to the school, which is a great benefit. When I was at a good grammar school in Lancashire, it was a mile and a half walk up the hill and down the other side to the playing fields.

I am sure that we can have sensible development, especially if emphasis is given to smaller-scale development. If we are moving towards a society in which more people live alone, we must consider the greater development of flats rather than large family houses.

Some of my other points are for the longer term but they must be considered. First, we must discover what we can learn from other countries, especially the Netherlands. My sister has lived there for 20 years. It has restrictions on to whom people can resell their houses, which must be offered first to people in the local community. The Netherlands, more than any other country in Europe, needs to use every acre of its land effectively because the supply of land is so limited. In the long term, the free market in the sale and resale of housing may have to be considered.

A perverse benefit of the recent recession was that the boom in the south-west has been curbed while the north of the country, for the first time in 100 years, has excellent economic development prospects. That may reverse the process of the past century whereby people have come from the north to seek employment and set up businesses in the south. However, the south-west has been the traditional target for people seeking to retire from the midlands, London and, indeed, all over the country. So, secondly, we may have to consider restricting the right of people to move from one part of the country to others when they retire. I might say to the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) that I know about that issue only too well because my mother lives in north Wales. Sooner or later, we may destroy the very facilities that attract people to the south-west in their retirement.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

A less draconian but more immediate measure would be to allow local authorities to require planning permission when a home is changed to a second or holiday home. That forces families to find other accommodation, possibly new-build accommodation, elsewhere quite unnecessarily. Such a measure would not stop such sales altogether but it would mean that the same planning requirements were necessary as for changing a home to a business.

Mr. Nicholson

I agree that that should be considered. All those matters, although they go against the philosophy of free markets and individual freedom that the Conservative party in particular has, for the past 20 years, laid great store by—and which are indeed valuable social and economic objectives—may have to be questioned in the interest of conserving our heritage. There is widespread support for that.

Thirdly, we may have to consider curbing commuting by people who live 100 miles from where they work. That process causes constant building on green-field sites and adds to transport pollution. One way to start curbing it would be by substantially restricting all-day parking in cities and conurbations so that parking facilities are for local people who come to shop, not for those who commute from 100 or 150 miles away. That objective would have implications for rail travel which the House should consider further.

Fourthly, measures to counterbalance the break-up of families have been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The segments of sundered families are requiring facilities for visiting children. Grandparents get sundered from families, live elsewhere and do not get support from them. It is not for politicians to preach, but I regret that we have not done more in recent years through fiscal, legal and social measures to try to halt that distressing process.

In addition to the environmental consequences that we are discussing, such separations also result in a great deal of unhappiness, misery and educational failure. Indeed, a lot of evidence shows that such family breakdown also leads to delinquency and crime. Greater success in holding families together could be an alternative to some of the more radical measures that I have suggested should be considered.

It is absolutely right that the House should debate such important matters, and look not just six months or even five years ahead, but 10 or 20 years ahead. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

11.49 am
Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

I am glad to make a brief contribution in this important debate on sustainable development, and I congratulate the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on initiating it. He has highlighted the subject at an extremely important time, and I am glad that he intends to raise the matter again in the new year. I would like to co-operate in the process to ensure that the issue is given the prominence that it deserves.

This is an important time because 1997 is the year of Rio II. At the same time important meetings will be held of the conferences of the parties to the climate change and biodiversity conventions. The purpose of Rio II is to consider the progress that has or has not been made on Agenda 21 since 1992. The House of Commons briefing document—we get a lot of excellent stuff from the House of Commons Library on sustainable development and associated matters—states: Putting Agenda 21 into action will be vastly difficult. I have no doubt about the difficulty of the task and the seriousness of the challenge, because sustainable development implies a major cultural as well as an economic and political shift. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for South Suffolk that the subject needs to be approached in the spirit of hope and creativity. We can celebrate the fact that the human race now has the capacity to move towards sustainability, which it was never able to do before, because of developments in technology and the enormous expertise and knowledge that is available to us.

Rio II needs to be taken seriously as an international occasion. One such indication would be an advance announcement that heads of state would attend. I would very much welcome a statement from the Prime Minister that he or the successor incumbent of his office will attend Rio II at New York in June. The Prime Minister was the first world leader to announce that he intended to attend the original Rio summit and that influenced the decisions of other world leaders. It is essential that the United Kingdom should take a lead this time, too.

The United Kingdom Government have taken a lead on climate change and greenhouse emissions. The achievement of stabilisation by the year 2000 has been fortuitous in part, nevertheless it is something to he pleased about. Earlier this year, the United Kingdom Government gave an important lead at the Berlin summit in establishing the targets that should be set. I hope that the Government will continue to do that and will confront the powerful vested interests that are trying to prevent such targets from being set.

The targets must be ambitious, because the current ones are hopelessly inadequate, except of course for the targets advocated by the Association of Small Island States. It has called for serious reductions because its people stand most to lose as a result of climate change.

Any discussion of greenhouse gas reductions must he considered in the context of global equity. There is a disgraceful and profound inequity in energy use. Currently 20 per cent. of energy is used by 80 per cent. of the population and vice versa. That must change. Those reductions must judged in the context of global equity and the idea of the global commons. That implies looking seriously at the question of sustainable consumption in the developed world.

The transport issue simply cannot be bucked, whether it is road or air transport, because we are witnessing a significant increase in the use of hydrocarbons, and therefore the production of carbon dioxide. Attempts to come to terms with changes in transport use imply far-reaching changes, for example, ultimately, a more decentralised pattern of production, distribution and consumption. In that context, I specifically urge the Government and the main Opposition party to support, at least in principle, the Road Traffic (Reduction) Bill, which is currently before the House. We are not kidding ourselves that it will get on to the statute book. It does, however, offer an opportunity to debate traffic reduction.

On greenhouse gas emissions, we must take far more seriously the potential of renewable energy. The current target for the year 2000 is 1,500 MW, which is almost trivial. It is useful, however, and I am glad to note that the Government recognise the importance of renewable energy. One should compare, however, the 1,500 MW with the 2,000 MW capacity of one power station at Pembroke were it to start to burn orimulsion.

It is good that we are beginning to move away from the notion of an inherent conflict between environmental protection and economic success. It is essential that we do that, because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that there is no such conflict in reality. We certainly need a new definition of what we mean by economic success. We need to adopt different indicators, such as the index of sustainable economic welfare, as a measure of economic success. Economic success does not always imply economic growth, and certainly not undifferentiated economic growth. The notion of sustainable development is important because we need to bring together the themes of environmental protection and economic success. That term has been mocked sometimes but we need to address it absolutely seriously and explore its important implications. The central aim of Government policy must be to integrate social welfare, development and employment opportunities within the context of global equity.

When we talk about environmental protection, we should also talk about environmental enhancement. That means increasing and strengthening the opportunities for biodiversity, not just protecting the reduced level of biodiversity which we have currently achieved.

I commend to the House a useful booklet entitled, "The Politics of the Real World", which has been produced by the Real World Coalition. The purpose of that publication is to influence debate during the general election campaign. The hon. Member for South Suffolk was pessimistic about that and he does not believe that it will feature in the campaign, but it certainly should given the crucial issue that it addresses.

It is not the intention of the Real World Coalition to influence the result of the election, but the agenda for debate during the campaign. Sustainable development should be at the heart of that debate. Not everyone will agree with everything that the booklet advocates, although the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) will find that it contains at least some ideas that he would commend. I was extremely interested to note his call for the need for intervention in certain areas that are regarded as sacrosanct for the free market.

Not everyone will agree with everything in that booklet, but it is the best attempt that I have seen to spell out what the British Government could do in certain specific areas towards achieving real sustainable development. At the heart of that, and the key instruments to enable that development to be achieved, is a combination of public investment and tax reductions. I suggest that Labour Front Benchers should study that document carefully and integrate, if not all, at least large parts of it into their programme for government.

I hope that this is the first of many debates on sustainable development both before and after the election—although, in a sense, all debates about economic policy and other areas of policy should also be debates on sustainable development. It should not be regarded as a separate issue, but treating it as such is at least a way of getting the debate going.

The initiative should come, not only from individual Members of Parliament, but from right hon. and hon. Members on the Government and Opposition Front Benches. It would be welcome if the main Opposition party—whichever party that might be in a few months' time—used one of its main Supply day debates as an occasion for discussing this subject in greater depth than we have managed today. The hon. Member for South Suffolk has started something extremely important and I wish both him and the rest of us well in advancing this important agenda.

12 pm

Ms Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

I join in congratulating the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on obtaining this important debate. I, too, believe that sustainable development is fundamental, both to our national and our global futures. The hon. Gentleman said that it is the supreme issue for politicians—I could not agree more. All the ideas that he has outlined this morning deserve consideration and we shall look closely at this debate as we continue to formulate our policies for Government; but I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will get a dusty answer from the Minister, because sustainable development is not something that the present Government have been practising.

Let me remind the House of the definition of sustainable development. We accept the definition coined by the Brundtland commission in 1987 and believe that it is a useful working definition. According to the commission, sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". For Labour, crucial to that concept is the fact that it brings together social, economic and environmental considerations. Sustainable development is about improving people's quality of life and not just their standard of living.

Clearly, the Rio Earth summit in 1992 was a landmark for sustainable development. Within a few months of the next general election, we shall celebrate the five-year anniversary of Rio, which other hon. Members have mentioned this morning and which will be an extremely important date for the new Government. We expect to be that new Government and to play our full part in attending Earth summit II and meeting our international obligations.

Fine words and conventions are not enough. The sorry fact is that the Government's record on sustainable development is totally inadequate. They like to trumpet their green credentials, but the truth is very different. For a start, the Government are failing systematically to conduct environmental appraisals of their own policies. It is extraordinary that no Government Department has yet been able to provide any evidence that it is conducting such appraisals, despite the fact that the Department of the Environment has been advising Departments to do so since 1991 and that it was a White Paper commitment.

The annual report of the Round Table on Sustainable Development, published in April this year, recommended that all Government departments should ensure that environmental considerations are fully taken into account when policies and programmes are determined, and should have procedures for ensuring that compliance with those requirements can be assessed and published. The Environment Select Committee published a report on the Department of the Environment's 1996 annual report, which stated: we wish to see in next year's Annual Report a much fuller discussion of how the Department has pursued its mission to integrate environmental concerns across Government. It appears that the Government have so little insight into their failure to implement their own environmental appraisal policies that they have now commissioned independent consultants to examine the extent of the problem. When asked about environmental appraisals conducted in 1995, the Treasury said that it had not carried out any such appraisals, despite major White Papers on competitiveness and deregulation, both of which have significant implications for the environment. The Department of Health said that the main environmental issues it faced were confined to purchasing policy. Even the Department of the Environment could not produce any evidence of having carried out an environmental appraisal on its own policies. If we contrast that with the 30 compliance cost assessments carried out by the Treasury in 1995, we begin to see how shallow is the Government's commitment to environmentally sustainable development.

I turn now to Green Ministers and the Departments' annual reports, both of which are supposed to contribute to sustainable development. The Green Ministers have had only seven meetings in five years, which hardly conveys any sense of urgency, and the Government have refused to publish the minutes of those meetings. Most departmental annual reports barely mention the environment, and information about the activities of Green Ministers and about departmental action to meet the commitments in the environment White Paper is notably absent.

The Government's evident lack of commitment to sustainable development is reflected not only in those complete failures to meet the promises of the White Paper, but in their many policies and actions in key areas, such as those to which the hon. Member for South Suffolk and other hon. Members referred and to which I now turn: land use, energy, transport, biodiversity and waste.

I shall not reiterate the points made by other hon. Members about land use, but say simply that the hon. Members for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) were both absolutely right to refer to empty homes. We have to make the best possible use of those properties that are already built, and a Labour Government will do that. We have clearly stated that we shall release the housing receipts, not only to enable new social housing to be built—primarily, of course, on brown-field sites—but to ensure that refurbishment takes place so that the waste of available and existing buildings is ended, once and for all.

Mr. David Nicholson

As I implied in my speech, the local authorities that are the main culprits in terms of maintaining empty properties are Labour councils—I am sure that both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Minister have the figures. What does the hon. Lady propose to do about such authorities?

Ms Ruddock

There is not a shadow of a doubt that concerns in respect of local authorities are mainly about Labour authorities—that is because most local authorities are controlled by the Labour party. That reflects our success in the elections, as the hon. Gentleman knows. That the authorities cannot put to good use the properties that are in the worst state of repair is entirely due to Government policies—it is the Government who have restricted local authorities and who will not allow them to carry out the necessary work. We have said clearly that we will enable authorities to carry out the work and that we will achieve that policy through the release of capital receipts.

The Government have failed to deliver a coherent and sustainable energy policy. We still lose more than 30 per cent. of primary energy in conversion to electricity and secondary fuels and in the distribution system. As we have heard, renewables account for only 2 per cent. of electricity generated. Perhaps most shocking of all is the fact that 8 million households cannot afford the heating they need and that cold-related illnesses cost the national health service £1 billion a year.

Tackling fuel poverty through improving the energy efficiency of homes would be the most truly sustainable move, but the Government massively cut the home energy efficiency scheme budget last year. Although they have put some of that money back and given some to the Energy Saving Trust this year, of which action we naturally approve, that in no way compensates for the cuts of one third of the budget last year. The changes announced this morning will not produce more warm homes—only a different mix. That will not maximise the effectiveness of the Government's scheme. The Government have failed to support domestic energy efficiency in this country at a level consistent with having a sustainable energy policy.

The Government have failed to respond to the recommendation of the Round Table on Sustainable Development that the gas and electricity regulators should work within a framework encompassing environmental and social, as well as economic, objectives. They have ignored the round table's fears that market forces alone will not be enough to promote energy efficiency—a key element of a sustainable energy policy. Obviously, the Government's narrow ideological commitment to privatisation and deregulation in energy, as in transport, is undermining any possibility of sustainable development.

Mr. Yeo

Will not cutting the rate of VAT on domestic fuel, as the Labour party proposes, give a massive subsidy to extravagant and wealthy users of energy? Given that it is Labour's first clear commitment on taxation, is that not about the most unenvironmental commitment that it could make?

Ms Ruddock

The hon. Gentleman knows that we believe that environmental protection must be consistent with social equity. VAT on fuel imposes greatest burdens on the poorest people—those who are already cold. We shall put measures in place to tackle the problem, and I shall mention those towards the end of my speech.

In transport, the sector where energy consumption is increasing fastest, the Government have failed to apply any of the principles of sustainable development. One in seven of our children suffer from asthma, exacerbated by traffic air pollution. Since 1970, car travel has almost doubled, whereas rail use has remained unchanged. Bus and rail fares have increased by more than 50 per cent. in real terms since 1974, whereas the real cost of motoring has fallen.

Many eminent organisations, including the Round Table, and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, have emphasised the need for change, but the Government continue with their failed and unsustainable policies. Their continued failure to invest in public transport was reflected, despite what Conservative Members say, in further cuts in last month's Budget, which undermine everything else that they may say about sustainability.

The Government have prided themselves on being a world leader in biodiversity, and we congratulate them on much that they have done, but the Department of the Environment internal appraisal report, Minis 17, reveals that the Government intend to scale down the biodiversity secretariat in only two years' time, and we understand that they do not intend to publish that report. Moreover, Minis 17 says that short-term business pressures tend to squeeze out more strategic thinking and militate against cross-departmental working"— further evidence of the Government's complete failure to integrate sustainable development into general policy making.

I am afraid that a similar picture emerges on waste, which is one of the most significant topics to tackle if we are to have sustainable development. The UK still has one of the worst recycling records in Europe. Ninety per cent. of domestic waste goes to landfill and only 5 per cent. is recycled. We are a long way from the Government's target that, by the end of the century, 25 per cent. of household waste will be recycled. It will fall to a Labour Government to ensure that that is achieved.

In conclusion, Labour in government has promised to put the environment at the heart of all decision making. Unlike the present Government, we intend to follow through on our promises. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has promised that we shall set up a parliamentary environment audit committee to scrutinise legislation for its environmental impact. We have undertaken to present an annual sustainable development report to Parliament, and each year we will publish a "green book" alongside the Chancellor's Red Book, setting out the environmental implications of Government policy. We will review the guidance to the Environment Agency to ensure maximum pollution control.

Several of Labour's flagship policies will contribute significantly to a more sustainable society, not least because we shall have a national energy strategy. We shall have a sustainable transport strategy, which means that we shall make that vital shift from private use to public use. We will try to ensure that people are provided with the means to get out of their cars, although we all wish to continue to own cars.

We will create an environmental task force to provide skills and training for unemployed young people and enable them to take part in enhancing our local and national environment. We will set up a national self-financing domestic energy programme, which will tackle fuel poverty, create jobs and reduce harmful carbon dioxide emissions. We have announced that it will be kick-started using millennium funds. We will increase the proportion of electricity generated from renewables to 10 per cent. by 2010 and 20 per cent. to 2025 and promote the increased use of combined heat and power.

All those measures will make up our more significant contribution to tackling the problems of global warming. They are only a few examples of how Labour's policies will put the principles of sustainable development into practice. We expect to have the opportunity, in only a few months' time, to show how much our policies will conserve the use of finite resources, reduce noxious and harmful emissions and protect our countryside. In so doing, we plan to play our part in accepting the UK's obligations to the international community to introduce more sustainable development.

12.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison)

This has been a wide-ranging and far-sighted debate. In the time left to me, I shall do my best to respond to the arguments that have been made, but if I do not have sufficient time I shall write to hon. Members about their points.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on securing the debate. He has a considerable background and great interest in the subject, and his selection of it has given the House the chance to look to the future. Generally, there have been far-sighted contributions from both sides of the House.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and other hon. Members who echoed the sentiment that the issue of sustainable development is extremely important for the future. Many hon. Members mentioned the special session of the United Nations General Assembly that will take place next year, following up the work of the Rio summit. I assure hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk, who rightly called for greater international co-operation, that this country will play a full role in that international summit, following up the role that we played at the Rio summit.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) was right in his generous acknowledgment of the role that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has played in those matters, taking a special interest as Prime Minister in environmental matters. My right hon. Friend was the first world leader to respond to the invitation to the Rio summit. It was good that so many other world leaders followed in his wake.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North has shown a profound interest in environmental matters—not only in Wales but worldwide. I know that he is interested in biodiversity, which I mentioned briefly, one of the important issues that were discussed at the Rio summit and will be followed up next year.

I share the views of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that that is a very important subject, and that some Governments fail to treat the biodiversity convention with the seriousness that they apply to other parts of the Rio process. Effective international action is needed if we are to ensure conservation and sustainable use of the world's species and habitats. None of us owns the world; we have it on loan. As was rightly said, debate on that subject will affect future generations. We want to pass on to them the wealth and variety of species and habitats that we enjoy in this country and worldwide.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) was very wide of the mark in her comments about biodiversity, because our plans for biodiversity are set out in our biodiversity action plan. We have set targets for 116 species and 14 habitats for the immediate future—with many more to come. That undermines everything that the hon. Lady said this morning. She should know that our biodiversity action plans are the envy of the world; people come here just to see how we are approaching the subject. If the hon. Lady wants evidence of a neglect of biodiversity, she would do well to look at her party's draft manifesto, which does not mention it at all. Apparently her party's leadership does not consider it a subject worth contemplating.

I come next to climate change, an important Rio subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk touched—drought, floods, changes in sea level and consequent economic and social changes. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) rightly accorded the issue considerable importance. The Kyoto conference a year from today will provide the occasion for further global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We are pushing for all developed countries to renew their efforts and to take the next step—by agreeing to reduce those emissions to between 5 and 10 per cent. below 1990 levels by the year 2010. The United Kingdom is already on course to return its emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. We are one of a minority of developed countries to do that; we are also among a minority of countries in the European Union to do so.

My hon. Friend stressed that he wished us to take a lead. We have already adopted a prominent role and, as my hon. Friend recognised, we shall continue to take a lead in this matter. We recognise that the current target is inadequate to meet the ultimate objective of the convention: to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. My hon. Friend was therefore right to say that we must do more. It is also right that developed nations should take the lead. Unless the richer nations of the west take seriously our responsibility for dealing with the pollution from which we have grown rich, we cannot expect the newer nations, which themselves are perfectly properly seeking to raise their standards of living, to take up their share of the burden.

We shall also follow up those other important Rio subjects: the forests and the oceans. We are continuing the work of the intergovernmental panel on forests set up by the post-Rio Commission on Sustainable Development, and we are also taking the lead with respect to the oceans. Last year, we took the lead in organising an international workshop with Brazil, held here in Westminster, in which we worked with others to develop an international approach to tackling the problems of the oceans.

In today's debate, we have been called on to monitor our progress in achieving sustainable development. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk that, when we published our "Strategy for Sustainable Development" in 1994, following the Prime Minister's commitment at Rio, we promised to monitor its progress by means of a set of key indicators, to be produced within two years.

Defining what we mean by sustainable development is not easy. I listened with interest to the philosophical remarks by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North. It is all about reconciling two basic aspirations: economic development to secure rising standards of living now and into the future; and protecting and enhancing the environment, now and for the future. The crucial point is whether we can continue to grow economically without inevitably causing further environmental damage by consuming ever more resources and producing more pollution. In short, sustainable development—in the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—means not cheating on our children". If we are to improve our policies to achieve this sustainable development, we need to monitor them by coming up with useful indicators. We published a preliminary set of "Indicators of Sustainable Development for the United Kingdom" in March of this year, following extensive discussions across Whitehall. The report is one of the first of its kind in the world. Although other countries and international organisations, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have published sets of environmental indicators, we believe that the United Kingdom is the first country to produce a set of indicators which explicitly links economic and environmental elements.

I want next to consider how such indicators and targets work in practice, especially in relation to energy efficiency. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk made some strong comments about the performance of the government estate in this context. I understand what he said, but I can assure him that the Government do care and that we are taking action to secure the targets to which he referred. In 1990, members of the ministerial group on energy efficiency collectively agreed the target of improving energy efficiency on the government estate by 15 per cent. in the five years to 31 March of this year. Given the size and diversity of the estate, that was a challenging target, which showed the Government's commitment to improving energy efficiency and their willingness to set an example.

In the first three years of the initiative, progress was slow, and at the end of March 1994—the last 12-month period for which figures have been published—it was only at the rate of about 6 per cent. It is, however, in the nature of such exercises that the initial effort is on something of a learning curve, with greater improvements coming through in the later stages. I am glad to say that the signs are that that will apply in this case.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that an announcement to conclude the five-year initiative will be made in a few days' time. He will understand that I cannot pre-empt that announcement at this stage, but I am sure that he will be pleased by the figures that are revealed. The initiative will not end with that announcement. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has sought agreement from colleagues to the establishment of a new target requiring a 20 per cent. improvement by the year 2000.

Meanwhile, the Government are seeking to reduce the amount of land converted from rural to urban use by maximising the re-use of previously developed land. I have heard the calls today from my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson). The Government set a target in last year's housing White Paper: half of all new housing to be built on previously developed land. Last week, when launching the Green Paper "Household Growth: Where Shall We Live?", my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State declared that the Government were seeking views on an aspirational target of 60 per cent., or even more, for new housing.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk urged us to set the even higher target of 75 per cent. I listened carefully to his arguments, including those for applying the sequential principle to the subject of housing development: I also heard his arguments for a green-field tax. Other hon. Members also seemed to be in favour.

Certainly great progress has been made in the past 10 years, with the proportion of new housing on recycled sites rising from 38 per cent. in 1985 to 49 per cent. by 1993.

The scope for the re-use of sites obviously varies from region to region. The major metropolitan areas with tight boundaries show the highest rates of re-use, with London achieving about 85 per cent.; while in the more rural counties the scope for re-use of urban sites is more limited. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton mentioned the changes in the character of Taunton that might ensue with expansion. I am sure that his comments struck a chord with people in many other areas, including the south-eastern counties. Moreover, his comments about the need for sensitivity in village architecture will have struck a chord with many.

I can assure my hon. Friends that we take this issue seriously. We are approaching it carefully and examining the whole subject of urbanisation with great care. We are keen to preserve our green belt and countryside as much as possible. The policies that we have put in place will go a long way in that direction.

I heard what my hon. Friends had to say about transport. They will know of our published national air quality strategy and the measures and targets that we have implemented to support it. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton may be pleased by some of the contents of the Local Government and Rating Bill. He called for help for rural car users. We recognise the importance of the car to rural areas, and he will find that that Bill includes car-sharing schemes to help rural dwellers.

I have been able to touch on some of the subjects raised in this far-seeing debate. The hon. Member for Deptford began promisingly in her speech, but unfortunately had to revert to type. She failed to catch the mood of the House and see the importance of the issues for future generations. She also failed to set out any policy targets or commitments. She spoke about sustainable development, but those two words do not appear in the Labour party's draft manifesto. It is widely recognised that that document is thin in environmental commitments and priorities, and sets no targets. We have set our targets and put in place the policies to achieve them.

Ms Ruddock

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clappison

I will not give way to the hon. Lady in the last minute. She was wrong in all that she said about environmental appraisal and the other topics that she raised. She did not do justice to the subject, she did not lift her eyes above the horizon of party political warfare and she did not set a tone for the future of sustainable development.