Contaminated Land & Construction – Review of the Year 2006

From fears over the environmental impact of England's housing boom to the prospect of losing greenbelt land to new developments, the contaminated land and construction sector was full of controversy this year as housing pressures continued to mount.

Much of England’s massive housing shortages could be met by building on previously developed land – the country has 63,000 hectares of brownfield land suitable for redevelopment – enough for 1 million homes in total including 400,000 in the accommodation-starved South East – ministers said in August.

Almost three quarters of new homes were built on brownfield land in 2006, as brownfield redevelopment rates reached record levels – 72% by February 2006, compared to 70% six months earlier and just 56% in 1997 (see related story).

But although almost all new homes were going up on previously developed land in areas with high land prices such as London many local councils were still not achieving the 60% land recycling target, with over a thousand hectares of greenfield land lost in the process each year, a report revealed in August.

But the current rate of building around 160,000 new homes each year were not fulfilling England’s housing needs, with concerns over the impact of developments like the Thames Gateway on energy and water resources as house-building rates rise towards the estimated 200,000 a year needed to meet demand.

In July the long-awaited Barker review endeavoured to shake up the planning process, recommending that big developments judged of “national importance” be fast-tracked, but also bringing the prospect of building on greenfield land as housing pressures mount.

As with many other sectors, the world of contaminated land and construction felt the effects of climate rising up the political agenda. With 40% of Britain’s CO2 emissions coming from buildings and energy efficiency repeatedly highlighted as the most cost-effective way of achieving carbon cuts, 2006 produced a host of green building regulations and climate-proof planning measures.

Regulations for new buildings were ‘greened’ at several reprises as the Government tried to save some of the energy lost by heating draughty homes and offices. In April the new Part L building regulations raised energy efficiency requirements for new build by 20 – 27%. Longer-term plans of making all new build carbon-neutral within a decade were unveiled in the December’s pre-budget report.

Green groups welcomed the 2016 target as a “step in the right direction” but pointed out an obvious problem with concentrating on new developments – namely that most emissions will come from existing, not new homes for years to come and that more effort should go into improving the energy efficiency of existing building stock.

The effectiveness of the Code for Sustainable Homes, the Government’s flagship policy that sets out plans for achieving the zero-carbon target, will also be compromised by the fact that it is not mandatory.

Meanwhile, London led the way on microgeneration by introducing a requirement for all new buildings to generate 20% of their energy from onsite renewables, and measures to retro-fit renewables and energy efficiency technologies to existing buildings.

The Government’s own microgeneration funding policy experienced a hiccup when money from the Low Carbon Buildings Programme ran out as householders embraced opportunities offered by the scheme even more enthusiastically than had been expected.

But despite calls for large-scale investment in clean energy technologies coming from the Stern review no new funds were allocated to the second phase of the programme, launched in December.

The year also saw repeated calls to climate-proof new housing, with planning highlighted as key to protecting it against the onset of flood, drought and other consequences of climate change (related story).

Despite the apparent clash between housing demand and the drive to conserve energy, water and protect green spaces, a housing boom need not mean environmental mayhem, a report from the homelessness charity Shelter said in November.

But for that to happen, Government needs to give householders more incentives to implement sustainable solutions as well as boosting investment in green infrastructure itself, the report said.

Goska Romanowicz

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