Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence


Memorandum from Sustainability Works


  1.1  Sustainability Works ( provides a free web-based sustainable housing tool, hands-on training sessions, expert consultancy and assistance for housing associations, local authorities, consultants and developers needing guidance on how to develop housing in a sustainable way.

  1.2  Based around a 2,000 page library of expertly researched, regularly updated information on sustainable housing, the on-line tool enables registered users to write a sustainable development policy for their organisation, set sustainability targets and check progress throughout the development process on individual projects, as well as compare projects against recognised standards such as the Building Research Establishment EcoHomes and Housing Quality Indicators.

  1.3  Funded by the Housing Corporation until April 2005, Sustainability Works has two years proven success with over 1,000 registered users from all sectors of the housebuilding industry, plus an ongoing training programme comprising sessions on how to gain maximum use from the on line tool as well as bespoke training and consultancy on sustainable development for individual organisations.

  1.4  The Sustainability Works on-line tool offers a set of recommendations guiding organisations to build up their own holistic framework for sustainable housing—this is of direct relevance to the EAC consideration of how any future building programmes can be made truly sustainable and take full account of environmental objectives as well as social and economic ones—our remit is to give guidance to housing organisations on exactly these issues. Sustainability Works also understands the concerns and priorities of the UK housing industry through regular contact with its registered users' database and face to face contact through training and consultancy.

  1.5  Sustainability Works has responded to the issues of specific concern to the Committee in 2 below.


2.1  Are the conclusions of the Barker Review compatible with the general principles of sustainable development and the Government's own sustainable development objectives?

  The general principle of sustainable development is to meet basic needs and improve the quality of life, while ensuring that natural systems and resources are maintained and enhanced both for the benefit of existing and future generations. Put simply—passing on the planet in good shape to our children, grandchildren and beyond. The Government's own sustainable development objectives are for social progress recognising the needs of everyone, effective protection of the environment, prudent use of natural resources and high, stable levels of economic growth and employment. The conclusions of the Barker Review suggest that the rate of housebuilding ( particularly affordable housing) must dramatically increase to meet demand and to reduce the cost of UK housing. In order to achieve this massive increase in housebuilding, greenbelt designation should be revisited and the planning system changed.

  A large programme of new housebuilding would not necessarily be in conflict with the principles of sustainable development. Making housing more affordable and having a housing stock which was medium to high density with good access to open spaces which fostered biodiversity, free from crime, sited in cohesive, inclusive communities which were involved in the development, management and maintenance of their homes, built from environmentally friendly materials, energy efficient, well designed with sustainable infrastructure, good public transport, local jobs and services all nearby—all this would be in line with the objectives of sustainable development and an asset to be handed on to future generations.

  Also, for housing to be sustainable in the long term it is necessary for it to be designed and constructed to be adaptable to changing needs and expectations. Residents should have a role in the design and management of their homes. This implies a shift in the housing market towards stakeholders having a significant role in decision-making and away from housebuilders having the overwhelming say in what gets built.

  So yes—the Barker review conclusions could be compatible if new housing adopted a holistic approach with stakeholder involvement and higher environmental standards than those currently implemented by the house building industry. Conversely, if the housebuilding industry's reaction was to produce more of the same, but in greater quantities—it would be a lost opportunity and not an asset for the future.

2.2  In view of the Barker Review is there are need for an overarching national strategy to ensure that the environment is at the heart of any building programme?

  We think that there is already a good sustainable development strategy in place—"A Better Quality of Life" so a new national one would not add anything further, plus sustainable development requires local and regional solutions, not a "one size fits all" approach. What is lacking is any "teeth" to the implementation of sustainable development- better planning control and building regulation is needed which incorporates the sustainable development agenda, plus the requirement for any new development projects to have a holistic environmental strategy.

2.3  Is the current planning system robust enough to ensure that the environmental implications of building projects are fully taken into account? How can the planning system be used to increase the building of more sustainable housing? Would the proposed changes to the planning system in the Barker Review have a positive or negative effect on the environment?

  We think the current planning system is not robust enough at present. As it stands the planning system confines itself to land use issues, requiring minimum densities of 30-50 dwellings per hectare (we think higher minimum densities may be appropriate for the majority of sites ), planning encourages mixed use, the sequential approach to previously developed land, and the percentage of affordable homes (usually dealt with by Section 106 agreements.) Some local authorities have Supplementary Planning Guidance which asks for a sustainable development checklist to be submitted, which covers a broader range of sustainable development issues. In some authorities there is also a requirement for the scheme to be submitted for a BRE EcoHomes assessment, but this practice is not widespread. Local authorities are often worried about discouraging developers from investing in their area, so are loathe to impose more onerous requirements than neighbouring authorities. Environmental Impact Assessments are only required on some sites and even then are submitted after planning permission has been granted.

  We think that the remit of planning needs to be widened beyond issues like density and the use of previously developed land to include other environmental aspects. Any new scheme should be considered in a holistic way—land use issues should be seen as inseparable from issues such as the potential for sustainable infrastructure, renewable energy generation etc on specific sites. Planning has the potential to look at these issues in the local context (rather than a one size fits all approach), which is essential to sustainability. All applications should be required to have a sustainability checklist assessment of some sort. The division between planning and building control should be remedied—this is recommended in the TCPA's Sustainable Housing Forum Report called "Building sustainably" October 2003.

  The proposed changes to the planning system in the Barker review include changes to the decision making process governing the allocation and release of land at local level, as well as assessing land according to its relative value to society (which is a radical way of considering land value).

  The environmental implication which is causing concern in some quarters is that greenbelt land will need to be released in certain areas where there is worsening market affordability and where brownfield land is difficult or slow to develop. Any developments which resulted in urban sprawl would be contrary to the principles of sustainable development, but it is true to say that some urban fringe land offers very little environmental benefit, as does agricultural land which is intensively cultivated and does not foster biodiversity. Any relaxation in greenbelt designation and loss of agricultural land would need to compensated for by rigourous environmental standards being insisted upon, such as efficient use of land, high ecological value landscaping, sustainable transport and infrastructure provision. Only if the release of greenbelt was seen as an opportunity to built projects to higher environmental standards than the norm, would there be an overall environmental benefit.

2.4  Where will the proposed new housing be built? What are the implications for land-use and flood risk of the large-scale proposed building projects?

  New housing will probably be built in the growth areas identified in the Sustainable Communities Plan. Some may be built on urban fringes or agricultural land, particularly in areas where brownfield land is difficult or costly to develop due to land contamination or land assembly problems and delays. Any redesignation of the green belt should have sustainable development strings attached—eg higher density/mixed use/local public transport/local facilities and services/local energy generation etc all provided by the developer.

  A large amount of the development proposed in the Thames Gateway is at potential risk from flooding. So new developments will effect flood risk. The use of permeable surfaces, local retention ponds etc should be mandatory for new developments. Flooding may become particularly problematic with adverse weather conditions predicted due to climate change—a precautionary approach should be taken.

2.5  Is it possible to ensure materials and resources used, and waste produced, during building do not have a harmful impact on the environment?

  It would be possible to significantly reduce the impact on the resource use and waste from housebuilding by adopting the use of environmental assessment methods including Life Cycle Analysis, Green Specification for Housing and Environmental Preference Method. These methods assess the environmental impacts of the air and water pollution produced by the extraction, transport, manufacture and disposal of materials. The Building Regulations do not currently cover the environmental impacts of materials.

  BRE EcoHomes currently assesses a limited range of impacts, from the use of timber for example, and could be extended to cover the impacts of construction as a whole. The market for low impact materials and products is relatively small at the moment and many materials are imported or expensive or both and increased regulation in this area would create a competitive market for green products.

2.6  Are the building regulations as they stand capable of ensuring that new housing is truly sustainable in the long term? How could they be improved? Could greater use be made of existing environmental standards for housing?

  Ensuring that new housing is truly sustainable requires amongst other things that the Building Regulations are extended to include higher standards of energy conservation, the conservation of water and the environmental impacts of construction. However, the Building Regulations cannot of themselves ensure that new housing will be sustainable; this requires a sustainable approach to planning issues which include density, transport and access to facilities.

2.7  How will it be possible to ensure a sustainable infrastructure, including transport and water supply, which will be necessary to support any extensive house building, is put in place?

  The technology for providing sustainable forms of infrastructure exists; the problem will be persuading developers to implement it. Again, better building control and planning regulation which insists upon a holistic approach will be necessary.

  A more imaginative use of section 106 agreements might include developers funding or contributing to sustainable public transport systems, local water supply and renewable energy generation for example.

2.8  Do those involved in housing supply, both in the public and private sector, have the necessary skills and training to ensure new housing meets environmental objectives? If not, how can the knowledge base of those involved in the planning and building process be improved?

  No, in our experience there is a general lack of skills and awareness, particularly in the private sector. We have trained around 250 people involved in housing development in the last 18 months, mostly from the HA sector but increasingly from private housebuilders, consultants and local authorities.

  Our training and dissemination programme has shown that housing associations are starting to address the environmental agenda due to the Housing Corporation's requirement for a sustainable development strategy and for all new schemes to achieve an EcoHomes "good" rating. The result is general awareness raising. Most housing associations are working up their own sustainable development policy and there is currently some really innovative work coming from the HA sector.

  Also, there are isolated attempts from housebuilders who are becoming more environmentally aware and who realize its potential as a marketing strategy. The publicity and coverage surrounding Bedzed and Greenwich Millenium Village for example has been immensely positive in this respect. But there is still a general lack of knowledge and skills amongst the majority of clients, housebuilders and consultants.

  There are various tools available to improve the knowledge base, including the Sustainability Checklist, BRE EcoHomes, Green Street (a Sustainable Homes initiative)and our own Sustainability Works. All of these tools have benefited from seed funding but actually need continued funding and support, as well as endorsement from central and regional government to ensure that organisations continue to use them. In our case, we only have guaranteed funding until 2005 from the Housing Corporation to continue to run the website and carry out our subsidised training programme.

  A critical element of knowledge base improvement is regular monitoring and self review. We emphasise on our training courses that it is not sufficient to just set a sustainable development policy, but the policy must filter down to individual development schemes and be monitored through the life of the project, plus lessons learnt fed back into future developments.

May 2004

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