Sustainable Communities need far more than just bricks and mortar

Truly sustainable communities should include a strong focus on 'soft infrastructure' issues and genuine community input and consultation as much as just 'bricks and mortar'.

This was the central message from Dr Phyllis Starkey, MP for Milton Keynes SW, and newly appointed chair of the ODPM Select Committee.

Speaking exclusively to edie news ahead of the first meeting of the select committee this week, Dr Starkey said that so called ‘soft’ needs, such as education, health, leisure and faith centres, were equally important considerations in creating sustainable communities alongside the physical, or ‘hard’, needs such as housing and transport.

“Any new development should focus on meeting genuine community needs,” she said. “And this means extensive consultation with all aspects of the community and getting real community input. You have to ask what sort of community we want, what we want it to look like and what we want for our future.”

However, this does not mean she is ignoring any other issues and made clear that delivery of affordable housing is still an overwhelming priority over the course of the next parliament.

“There are still large numbers of people unable to afford a suitable home, or who are living in unsuitably poor housing and that needs to be addressed,” she said.

Dr Starkey put forward plans last year to offer discounted homes to all young people – based on income – some months before the government’s own discounted housing scheme was announced.

She added that council tax, local government finance, and the green paper on planning, due in the autumn, were likely to be among the first points of discussion when the select committee meets later this week.

Being MP for one of the largest housing growth areas in the Sustainable Communities plan, Ms Starkey is in a unique position to scrutinise the work of the ODPM. She said she was aware of the criticisms from the environmental community – such as high housing density on water scarce areas, lack of building regulation enforcement and energy efficiency measures – and that these would certainly be addressed.

But, she said, they need to be balanced with community needs for housing and growth. “You have to remember that in most growth areas the demand for growth, for housing, for jobs, comes from within the area.”

Dr Starkey, former Leader of Oxford City Council and National Chair of the Local Government Information Unit, was recommended for the post after Labour backbenchers rejected former housing minister Nick Raynsford.

Edie news will be publishing an assessment of the Sustainable Communities strategy in our September special report.

By David Hopkins

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