Communities Minister hits back at jibes over housing plans

Communities Minister David Miliband has hit back at critics of the Government's house building plans, saying that "we don't just want to build houses - we want to create communities."

Writing in the Guardian, Mr Miliband was responding particularly to a report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) in November that said negative perceptions of affordable housing, and lack of community facilities would blight new developments, especially the Thames Gateway (see related story).

The IPPR research found that what most respondents wanted from new developments was good shops close by and facilities such as doctor’s surgeries and nurseries within walking distance.

It found that people were put off by the idea of affordable housing and saw new build homes in large developments as monotonous and characterless. The researchers concluded that attracting a social mix of people to the Thames Gateway development would be a big challenge.

However, Mr Miliband has responded by saying it is vital to create mixed communities and that most residents will be “in pram-pushing distance of new neighbourhood level institutions and spaces, a children’s centre, an extended primary school open from 8am to 6pm, a GP surgery increasingly focused on public health within the area, a safer neighbourhood police team of six staff attached to a particular ward, and new communal facilities, from gardens to community centres.”

He added that, while people may be put off by the tag of affordable housing, they still want to live in a home they can afford. He cited the government’s low-cost housing competitions as a way of coupling good design with affordability and stressed that good design should be a guiding principle throughout whole developments, not just for the houses.

Miliband went on to defend the planning gain supplement which, he said, would ensure a proportion of the increase in land value would go back to local communities.

“Resident participation does and will make a huge contribution to the success and strength of a community. We will work to bring private developers, councils and housing authorities together with local people,” he said.

The IPPR report is just the latest in along line of criticism from environmental, architectural and building groups criticising the Government’s housing and sustainable community plans.

In November, the Urban Task Force, chaired by architect Lord Rogers, said the Thames Gateway in particular, and the sustainable communities developments in general, were failing the environment and creating unsustainable developments (see related story).

This was followed in December by news that the WWF had resigned “in despair” from the government’s steering group on sustainable building design saying sustainability seemed to have been dropped from the agenda (see related story) and criticism from Wates, one of Britain’s largest building groups, who produced a report saying that current government plans will fail communities and have to be re-built in 30 year sor so (see related story).

“Although sustainability is central to the Government’s regeneration plan, a standard system of measurement by which delivery can be benchmarked has not yet been formulated. Procurement processes remain focused on short term capital costs rather than the whole-life cost method that is central to a sustainable approach,” it says.

“We have been tasked with building sustainable communities, yet our performance is not measured against this objective. Although the Government is using 68 Key Performance Indicators to assess whether a community is sustainable, these have not yet been translated into standard practical measures of sustainable development.”

The report says that the construction industry could quite feasibly reduce its environmental footprint in terms of emissions, waste and water usage, but that this will not happen without impetus from Government regulations.

David Hopkins

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