A few home truths

Is the government's Sustainable Communities Plan truly sustainable? Will plans to build thousands of new homes in the south-east of England harm the environment and mean other regions become less prosperous? CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves investigates

The urgent need for new housing, if met with undue haste and an absence of thorough environmental appraisals, will lead to significant and irreversible environmental damage - this is the stark warning of the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

These words set the tone of a report on the government's plans to provide affordable housing in an area of England roughly south of a line stretching from the Severn Estuary to the Wash. Unfortunately, John Prescott's plans for affordable housing in the south-east of England have not been universally well received. Some see the plans as a knee-jerk reaction to the Treasury-driven Barker Report on future housing need, while others regard it as an attempt to promote economic growth in the south-east at a huge cost to the environment and to the detriment of other regions.

In its report, Housing: Building a Sustainable Future, the EAC slated the government for failing to incorporate its own rhetoric on sustainable development into housing policy, and for leaving the environment as a 'bolt-on' extra. It also said the Barker Report was an attack on the principles of a democratic planning process that takes no account of environmental considerations or impacts.

Of course, I accept we need to improve the supply of housing but, as things are, the main beneficiaries of housing growth are the developers, with the environment we all depend on being the loser. To be blunt, the EAC report confirms what many of us suspected - the Sustainable Communities Plan (SCP) is not sustainable at all and the government would be hard-pressed to show how the plan conforms to its own UK strategy for sustainable development, which was launched by Tony Blair and an impressive line-up of his ministerial team to an invited audience in London on March 7 this year.

Securing the Future is a landmark strategy that contains 250 commitments for a sustainable future. It requires Prescott to show how his plans for the south-east will meet the goal. Personally, I cannot wait - as I pointed out to ministers at the launch, plans for housing in the south-east will almost certainly breach the environmental limits the new strategy for sustainable development is keen to respect.

For a steer on this, the deputy prime minister could do no better than read Better Buildings - Designing for Water Efficiency, a new report from the Green Alliance, supported by Thames Water, CIWEM and the EA. It gives clear recommendations on what housing development means in the context of a sustainable environment.

The deputy prime minister's plan, meantime, misses the key point by a mile - it is relying on an outmoded 'predict and provide' mentality that does not take into account environmental limits or impacts of climate change, and will store up problems for the future. An example is the failure to take into account the strain that proposed housing development places on the environment and on the water and wastewater infrastructure. Without changes to building regulations, developers are unlikely to avail themselves of the latest and most sustainable technology in areas like water efficiency, sustainable drainage and water harvesting. However well-meaning, a non-enforceable sustainable buildings code will not do the same job. So the water companies will be forced to conjure fresh water, where in the real world there is none - enter the desalination debate. Furthermore, many of these new homes have been earmarked as part of future development on flood plains in a part of the country where around 10% of homes are already at risk of flooding.

It has been made clear to me from a reliable source that the impacts of climate change have hardly figured in the government's thinking. A point confirmed in the EAC report, which says MPs were "astounded" to discover Defra had been sidelined on housing issues, when it should have played a central role in ensuring the plan meets all the tests of sustainability. One more thought - delivering sustainable communities is no easy task and the recent Egan Review: Skills for Sustainable Communities identified a serious shortage of the skills and training that would be necessary to implement the plan and to sustain the new communities. Egan found there are around 100 occupations relevant to sustainable communities and there are skills shortages in most of them.

Like the plan or loathe it, the government is determined to press on with its strategy for housing growth. However, there may yet be a level of democracy that puts paid to some of the growth. It is becoming clear centrally imposed targets are drawing antagonism from local people. For new developments to succeed, the consent of local communities will be essential, with assurances their environment, quality of life and the bills they pay will not be compromised.

In my opinion, this particular circle cannot be squared and the government will have a fight on its hands. In the meantime, the EA has warned thousands of new homes in the south-east "could set off an environmental time bomb", which leads me to wonder if a sustainable community can ever be sustainable?


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