Localism and Sustainability

Much has already been written on the subject of the Localism Bill. But what interests me is what impact it will have on the sustainability of new development?

There are a number of provisions that seem to favour more sustainable development, if you believe, as I do, that sustainability means serving local needs. There is the new power for communities to buy local assets and to use them in a way that they agree it should be used, i.e. building new homes on previously undeveloped land, or preserving it as parkland. The voting in these situations is currently set to be 50% of those who vote. I.e. if two vote and one says yes, then the proposal goes ahead.

There is the power for communities to vote down or change local authority proposals that are unpopular, and lastly, there is a presumption in favour of sustainable development. More on that later.

The principle of involving people who are local to a development in helping to decide the direction that the development will take, will mean that the outcome is more likely to serve their needs than not. There are provisions in the Bill that prevent it from becoming a NIMBY charter.

There is a footnote in a ministerial speech here which includes a determination to ‘stop unsustainable urban sprawl’. Tories traditionally have a ‘thing’ about the Green Belt, and this appears to be a reference to it. If this is somehow turned into policy, then that would also be a good thing, as we have already used up too much land with low quality low density suburbs, and we should be building denser communities to save on land and to encourage the sharing of high quality services. It is a bit of a shame that one of the first things the Coalition did was to abolish the 30 dwellings per hectare rule, which directly contradicts their aim to stop unsustainable urban sprawl.

What is not clear yet is the relationship between local and national targets. Each local authority can set its own local targets within the local standards framework. This could be a recipe for the continuation of the current ridiculous situation where local authorities across the UK have different targets for reducing CO2 emissions in their new buildings. A sample of the different standards are as follows: (feel free to send me your own examples and I’ll add them to the list)

  • GLA: Covering large scale residential projects in London: 20% of CO2 emission reductions through renewables
  • Islington Council: 40% of CO2 emissions compared to a 2006 baseline using low and zero carbon technologies
  • Plymouth Council: 15% of CO2 reductions to be achieved through renewables
  • Ealing Borough Council: 20% of CO2 emission reductions through renewables
  • Medway Council: 10% of CO2 emission reductions through renewables

And so on:

The plan is to create a local standards framework for national use, but local authorities can decide how to apply the standards. Its a bit like creating a menu for a restaurant chain, i.e. you can buy anything you like so long as it is on the menu, if it is not on the menu, forget it. What is not clear yet is whether local authorities can extend the standards as they did with the Merton Rule.

What has yet to be decided is what those national standards are going to be. There is no doubt that the current alphabet soup of standards created by the HCA, CABE, Habinteg, BRE and others has backfired and created an unneccessarily complex development regime. There is also no doubt in my mind that many suggestions from industry for the content of  the standards framework will attempt to put a lot of what is in those standards into the Building Regulations, and what cannot be easily put in the Regulations will be quietly abandoned.

There are many elements of the standards that ought to be retained, particularly those that are aimed at the environmental sustainability of our new housing,  such as the rising levels of CO2 emission reductions in the Code for Sustainable Homes, the Ecology provisions and the surface water provisions. But would anyone regret the passing of Lifetime Homes? Who would miss those enormous ground floor WC’s?

The next few months are going to be interesting indeed, and I would be interested in hearing from you what standards that you think should be retained, and why. I will be submitting a consultation response on the subject of what sustainability standards that should be retained or developed. I am anxious that the good work that the HCA has done over the last five years in improving the sustainability standard of new housing in the UK is not lost and that we continue in a positive direction of environmentally sustainable housing. There is a real danger that the GG,E will throw the baby out with the bathwater in trying to free up the development path to more housing. New housing is needed, but not any old new housing.

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