Sustainable Communities plan failing the environment, task-force warns

The Government's Sustainable Communities Plan marginalises the environment, urban areas are under threat from poor design, and high-quality urban renewal is constrained by a confusing plethora of public sector regeneration bodies.

These were the key findings of a report by the Urban Task Force, chaired by Lord Rogers of Riverside, which has called on the Government to take a fresh look at its policies to regenerate towns and cities.

Speaking at the launch of the report, ‘Towards a Strong Urban Renaissance’, Lord Rogers said: “Plans to build new housing in the south east, demolish abandoned housing in the north and radically reshape east London for the 2012 Olympic Games are monumental opportunities. They could deliver so much, but taking the wrong approach now could saddle generations to come with a legacy of failure.”

“Quantity should not be placed before quality,” he said.

He recommends that urban regeneration should be based on creating well-designed places for people, promoting social inclusion and environmental responsibility in all our towns and cities.

“Creating ghettos of poorly designed environments can fuel social tension and exacerbate social conflict, as recent events in France have shown,” Lord Rogers said. “Integration is the key to modern urban living.”

The report does see some achievements in the Government’s environmental record but still sees many challenges ahead.

It says the environment feels marginal to the Sustainable Communities Plan; that efforts to meet demand for new housing could undermine existing communities and create unsustainable developments; and that environmentally wasteful design is exacerbating fuel poverty.

It recommends taking a brownfield first approach to all new housing development and setting a new target of 75% of new building to be on previously developed land. The Code for Sustainable Buildings should be extended to private sector housing developments as well as public, and the Government should recognise the “huge potential in our 22 million existing homes, the vast majority of which are structurally sound.”

While it highlights the model procurement process of the Greenwich Millennium Village, and the effective green infrastructure in the Wicken Fen development, the report holds particular scorn for the Thames Gateway development.

Despite being one of the world’s greatest urban opportunities, the Thames Gateway is “failing to live up to its full potential”, the report says.

“A confusing plethora of nearly 30 institutions are tasked with managing the development and regeneration process”, it says, which is leading to a “fragmented urban landscape.”

“A trip down the Thames reveals how we are squandering a great opportunity; small scale, low-quality, shoddily built houses stand cheek by jowl with oversized structures, with no sense of scale, design, character or continuity. The river itself is cut off from most of the surrounding communities,” the report states.

The Task-Force singled out Canary Wharf as an example of the way well-designed environments can be delivered, with just a single board – the London Docklands Development Corporation, consisting of ten people – responsible for strategic decisions. The development was completed in record time, from brownfield site to completion of the tower in just four years.

“Significantly, all other bodies reported to this board,” the report found. It went on to say that the City of Barcelona delivered a successful Olympics in 1992 with an equally focused body and that London should learn from this.

“The lessons for the future are clear: without a small focused decision making board responsible for strategic decision-making, the delivery of a high quality environment is at risk in the Thames Gateway.”

David Hopkins

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