Government green targets raise more questions than answers

Members of the Commons environmental audit committee posed a fair question for their latest investigation.

Are environmental concerns being sacrificed on the altar of the three million homes the government wants built by 2020?

The government was slow out of the blocks on this. Some ministers could not see the problem with climate change even three years ago. Then it struggled to gain momentum before suddenly hitting its stride with an ambitious zero carbon target and fresh thinking on sustainable infrastructure. But it all too readily trips up. Even today, Whitehall is still at a loss in assessing the full environmental consequences of such a massive development programme.

In its defence, these are very thorny issues. Who really knows how much carbon will be emitted from making, transporting and using building materials in the construction of three million homes and associated infrastructure? A sizeable 33 per cent of the UK's waste is generated from construction, demolition and excavation work. All in all, the government has a good distance to go on this issue and it is one that is sure to run and run.

Just as pertinently, is anybody out there building anything at all? Barely had the ink dried on the MPs' report than housing and planning minister Margaret Beckett was urging all concerned that now is "not the time to scale back on long-term ambitions". The many challenges facing the planning sector will still be there when the economy stabilises.

Yet while Beckett's sentiments are laudable after a year of carnage in the construction industry and mortgage lending, many across the development sector will have an overriding image of stable doors closing and horses bolting. There must be serious question marks over the government's dependence on the community infrastructure levy and continued section 106 funding. It would be a big mistake to build homes in the hope that infrastructure will somehow come over the horizon like a relief column for a beleaguered army.

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