The minister has a few modest targets for you to meet: like eliminating carbon dioxide emissions, beating the Germans, making Part L even tougher, rescuing pandas, preventing floods – and saving the world … Matthew Richards finds out more.
As I enter his roomy office, Michael Meacher apologises for keeping me waiting half an hour. At one end of a long wooden table are five white coffee cups, drained to the dregs – the only sign of a meeting on genetically modified food that ran on longer than expected.

Meacher is used to extended meetings. As environment minister, he has one of the widest-ranging and demanding briefs in Whitehall: he deals with polluted beaches one moment, airports the next and even finds time to have a go at the capitalist system. But as far as the environment goes, he reckons construction and building design should be higher up the agenda.

"Most people realise a car is polluting when they see fumes coming out of the back," he says. "When you look at a house, you don't think of it in those terms – but it's polluting all the time." And what of the fact that buildings are the world's biggest energy consumers, accounting for 40% of the whole? "Those figures speak for themselves. A lot more attention needs to be given to the issue."

For a start, he thinks that this year's toughening of energy-saving requirements in the Building Regulations didn't go far enough. "Part L has recently been tightened, but not sufficiently. When you look at amazing examples like Bedzed [the estate in south London that has zero carbon dioxide emissions], you see what is possible."

So, does he think all new buildings should be brought closer to those standards? "Environmentally, you won't be surprised to know we're looking for better standards – but it's a cross-government matter," says Meacher.

The minister in charge of Building Regulations is 30-year-old Christopher Leslie, a young Blairite who wasn't born when Meacher entered parliament in 1970. Political commentator Andrew Roth describes the 62-year-old, as "one of the real ministerial successes of an ageist Blair administration", and he might yet persuade his young colleague to make Part L even more stringent.

Meacher doesn't just want houses built to more exacting energy-saving standards – he also wants to avoid building them in flood plains. He says: "A high proportion of housing has been built in the flood plain, but there would have to be very good reasons in planning terms to continue, bearing in mind we're now entering an era where flooding is increasingly frequent."

I issued instructions about the need to source timber from sustainable sources. That didn’t happen in the case of the Cabinet’s doors

He raises the flooding issue when I mention John Prescott's plans to build up to 200,000 new homes in the Thames Gateway, and says some houses might have to be built in a flood plain if there is nowhere else to put them. But he adds: "Increasingly, the whole issue of insurance will arise. Will insurance be available for houses that were built on the flood plain knowingly, when flooding had already started to increase? It's a difficult issue."

Despite the complexities of flood plains and Part L, Meacher welcomes the World Wildlife Fund's challenge to the government to create a million sustainable homes over the next 10 years and so take pressure of the habitats of endangered species. He says: "It is a tremendous challenge, the number of sustainable homes is certainly not more than a few thousand at the moment." But he points to the superior sustainable housing in Germany and Scandinavia, and concludes: "If other countries can do it, so can we."

People on income support already enjoy reduced VAT on energy-saving materials for their home. Meacher wants to extend the tax break to everyone, regardless of income level, in an effort to catch up with Germany and Scandinavia.

He also looks to European neighbours for a lead on making commercial buildings more sustainable. The European Union has drafted a directive on the subject, and Meacher is waiting to see the details. He says the climate change levy puts pressure on industrial buildings to improve their energy efficiency, and there is some pressure on residential buildings, too. He says: "The one area that is missed out at the moment is the commercial sector, so the EU directive is an important filling of a gap."

Closer to home, the government was embarrassed in April when Greenpeace revealed that the new Cabinet Office's doors were made of sapele, an endangered tree in the central African rainforest. Meacher says: "I issued instructions in September 2000 about the need to source timber from sustainable sources. That didn't happen in the case of the Cabinet's doors." Since then, Meacher has tightened up the procurement process, insisting on independent proof that materials used in public buildings are sustainable.

Timber is just one aspect of his drive to make government procurement more sustainable, especially by taking life-cycle costs into account. He says: "The government is improving, but it is patchy." Meacher's conclusion on the doors episode sounds like a defence of the government's overall environmental performance: "We did at least try, and I think we deserve credit for that."

Personal effects

Why did you move from an undergraduate degree in classics to postgraduate work in sociology?
A professor at Oxford suggested I should go the London School of Economics. I did, and my mental outlook was really transformed by my experience there.
What career did you have in mind?
My mother wanted me to be a vicar in the Church of England. I intended to become a probation officer. What do you read for pleasure? I’m very interested in cosmology. I studied philosophy at university, and I’ve always had a strong religious side. Cosmology brings together all of these.
So presumably you’ve read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time?
I have, but I’m one of the few people who’ll admit that there were several passages that I couldn’t understand. Several premises of the argument were missed out.