Wising up to reality of SCP

Elaine Coles from IMS discusses whether the government's Sustainable Communities Plan is unsustainable in its present form

Back in October 2003 the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published the Sustainable Communities Plan (SCP) setting out the government's long-term plans to tackle the UK's housing needs, particularly in the south-east where demand massively exceeds supply. Since then the report has been the subject of much debate and criticism.

Now the heavyweight House of Commons' Environmental Select Committee has entered the fray with a swingeing attack on government strategy in its new Report Housing: Building a Sustainable Future. On publication of the report, Peter Ainsworth MP, chairman of the committee, said: "The government's housing policy is an alarming example of disjointed thinking in an area where joined-up policy is crucial. John Prescott's new five-year plan still misses the key point - until the government takes proper account of the strain which house building places on the environment, we will continue to create serious problems for ourselves and future generations. I accept the need to improve housing supply but, as things stand, the principal beneficiary of housing growth will be property developers, with the environment we all depend on being the principal loser."

The committee launched its inquiry in April 2004, in the wake of the follow-up Barker Review of Housing Supply: Final Report (March 2004), taking as its remit the need to examine whether the scale of house building was compatible with the government's stated aim of placing sustainable development at the heart of policy and with its duty of protecting the environment.

The bald conclusion of the report is the government is failing on all counts. The committee is highly critical of both the SCP and the Barker Review, seriously questioning the government's commitment to sustainable development and highlighting what it regards as major shortcomings in the approach to tackling these problems. The committee's concerns neither the environment nor the principles of sustainable development were properly addressed in either document are repeatedly referred to throughout their report.

"&We are disappointed not to see set out explicitly in the key requirements for a sustainable community the need to comply with the principles of sustainable development; and we deplore the absence of any reference to environmental protection, or the need to respect environmental limits&.The belated effort by ODPM to explore how sustainable development is linked to the SCP is a stark example of the failure of government to place sustainable development at the heart of policy making and of how environmental considerations remain a bolt-on rather than a primary concern. It would appear to us many of the efforts directed towards achieving sustainability within the SCP are little more than a window-dressing exercise."

The committee was particularly concerned about the potentially disastrous impacts on the four areas identified by the SCP as targets for accelerated growth, namely the Thames Gateway, the London-Stansted-Cambridge corridor, Ashford and the Milton Keynes/south Midlands area, commenting: "It is astounding that despite the clear need for an assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposals for the Growth Areas as a whole, nothing has been done to date by ODPM or DEFRA to address this issue."

The report highlights the concerns already expressed in other quarters about the dangers of building on flood plains or areas already prone to flooding, commenting that "the proposals for growth, particularly in the Thames Gateway, are likely to result in a dramatic increase in the number of properties being flooded unless the Environment Agency's (EA) advice is heeded" and supporting the ODPM recommendation the EA should become a statutory consultee for applications in areas notified as at risk of flooding or likely to add to flood risk.

Similar concerns were also expressed about further demands being placed on already over-stretched water supply and sewerage services. Water resource availability is one of a number of key issues that the committee believes neither the SCP nor the Barker Review have adequately taken into account. The committee makes a number of key recommendations with regard to the Barker Review and the SCP respectively. On the Barker Review, it expresses great regret the report's author failed to take full advantage of the remit of her review in relation to sustainable development& "An important opportunity to embed sustainable development at the heart of policy in England has been wasted. As a result of this basic flaw in the Barker Review, the government has been able to take the review's agenda forward without having to acknowledge the serious environmental implications contained within it."

The committee concludes the present evidence base for the government's housing policies is inadequate and no proposals are taken forward to further increase housing supply with out ensuring there is a sufficiently strong evidence base to support them. It also recommends the ODPM and HM Treasury should publish a substantive response to the Barker Review as a matter of urgency setting out which recommendations are being taken forward, which are being considered as options and which have been discarded.

On the SCP, the committee commented "it is astounding that despite the clear need for an assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposals for the growth areas as a whole, nothing has been done to date by ODPM or DEFRA to address this issue".

In the committee's view: "There is a pressing need for a thorough environmental appraisal of the SCP. It is imperative something as significant as the plan should be assessed for its environmental and other impacts on the country as a whole, not only for its impacts on the areas where growth and investment are planned. With this in mind, the government should strongly consider a National Spatial Framework similar to those already in place in Scotland and Wales."

The committee also believes the ODPM and the treasury must make clear at what stage they will judge the south-east region to have reached its growth limits and what options they have considered to assist social and economic development within sensible environmental limits elsewhere in the country. The committee also draws attention to the fact that while the ODPM has committed itself to having a broadly agreed definition that could be used by everyone engaged in the delivery of sustainable communities this has not yet been published, commenting: "We would like to know if or when ODPM intends to publish its definition of sustainable communities. This definition must give a clear indication of exactly how sustainable development underpins sustainable communities; and should explicitly give the environment equal footing with social and economic goals."

Finally, it also makes the key point the environmental principles within sustainable development must be better understood by local authorities, by developers, by the construction industry and by national government. Many of these fundamental principles will come under the microscope at a series of major exhibitions and conferences taking place at the NEC, Birmingham from May 24-26. ET 2005 is the UK's largest environmental technology and management services exhibition and conference, which also includes the Environmental Management Forum. ET is held in conjunction with the National Energy Management Exhibition (NEMEX) and International Clean Up (ICU), the UK's only contaminated land exhibition and conference. Together, the exhibitions address the environmental issues currently confronting the government in its quest for sustainable development.

Pollution, waste, energy, water resources and use, regeneration of brownfield land will be extensively covered in a series of seminars, workshops and conferences throughout the three days. The environmental technologies and services likely to deliver some of the solutions needed to address the problems raised by the EAC's Report will also be on display. Visit the website at www.et-expo.co.uk for further information and registering online.


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