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Rush to Meet Housing Targets Has Come at the Expense of Residents and the Environment

20 May 2007


In the Government's enthusiasm to get houses built quickly, residents risk missing out on sustainable communities. According to the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), the Government's independent watchdog, current delivery of the housing programme still involves unnecessarily high levels of demolition of people's homes, builds on severely water-stressed areas, fails to get local facilities and public transport for residents on time, and does not yet take full account of climate change.

Based on site visits and interviews with local authorities, developers and residents, the SDC report assesses whether the Government has delivered on its promise to create sustainable communities. The SDC is hugely encouraged by the way in which CLG Ministers are now addressing sustainability issues, and the report identifies some impressive pockets of good practice. But overall the SDC finds that few communities built so far are living up to the promise of being environmentally sensitive, well-connected, thriving and inclusive.

According to SDC research:

* Housing growth is taking place in severely water-stressed areas. There are serious concerns about whether these areas will be able to cope with increased demand
* There is still a significant amount of undeveloped land being used for new houses
* Despite a shift in Government policy, there are still plans for extensive demolition of occupied homes in the North and the Midlands. This can break up communities, destroy built heritage and create significant waste
* Government has made real progress on climate change with its pledge that new homes will be zero carbon in 10 years' time. But the Government needs to offset carbon from now until 2016 by drastically cutting emissions from existing houses
* A lack of co-ordination means that some communities are left without vital facilities, convenient bus routes, shops, community centres, and parks when residents move in
* Residents report that some new community designs are causing tension by creating a distinct divide between private and affordable housing
* Consultation with residents about plans for their homes has often been poor
* The Government's current focus on house-building alone will not lead to the much-needed regeneration of Midlands and the North

Rebecca Willis, Vice-Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, says:
"People want safe, attractive and affordable places to live. Despite the Government's good intentions, our research shows that new communities aren't always coming up to scratch.

"There's still a huge opportunity for Government to get this right. The priority must be to turn our existing communities into eco-towns. Communities can be green and prosperous, with well-planned public transport and great facilities. But the Government must learn from past mistakes and put residents' needs before commercial interests and housing targets."

The SDC report concludes that the Government must:

* Connect new housing with existing communities, rather than sprawling into undeveloped land. This will help to regenerate existing communities and improve job prospects
* Remove the current incentive for developers to demolish people's homes (zero VAT on new build versus 17.5% VAT on refurbishment) by equalizing VAT
* Ratchet up standards for water and energy efficiency measures, e.g. by installing water meters and high quality insulation in all homes
* Significantly improve co-ordination of long-term funding, so that residents get access to vital services and public transport on time
* Plan for high quality, well-maintained green spaces, such as sports areas, community gardens and parks, in all new communities
* Consult residents extensively about the future of their communities as a matter of course

Download the report: Building Houses or Creating Communities?


Notes to Editors

The SDC is the Government's independent watchdog on sustainable development. Building Houses or Creating Communities? is SDC's first watchdog report.

Housing impacts

* There are 24 million homes in the UK, accounting for over a quarter of carbon emissions
* Houses built from today will represent about a quarter of our houses in 2050
* The demolition industry creates over a third of the UK's waste, four times what we collectively produce at home
* Demolition and replacement costs up to 10 times more than refurbishment, although the zero rate VAT on new build versus the 17.5% VAT on refurbishment encourages developers to opt for the more destructive option
* In its recent report, Water Resources for the Future, the Environment Agency identifies that water resources are a fundamental constraint on the proposed housing growth. The Sustainable Communities Plan's proposed Growth Areas are where the water problem is greatest. In the meantime, current housing approvals are rarely meeting the higher water efficiency standards that the Environment Agency would like to see.

SDC evidence

* The SDC assessed delivery of the Sustainable Communities Plan (SCP) through an extensive programme of site visits, public opinion research, stakeholder interviews, area-based assessments and desk research.
* Some Growth Areas are still at a planning stage, so the report includes evidence from areas where the original planning permission was given before the Sustainable Communities Plan was formally implemented. However, discussions with planners and local authorities reveal that the approach to developments under the SCP has been very much 'business as usual', and such practice is likely to continue.
* The SDC's report considers the original Sustainable Communities Plan, the 2005 CLG (ODPM as was) Five Year Strategy, the Barker Review of Housing Supply and subsequent responses and policy statements from CLG.

Background to the Government's housing programme and the Sustainable Communities Plan

* The Sustainable Communities Plan was launched in 2003 as a major, long-term regeneration and growth programme, focusing on tackling the decline of urban centres in the north and midlands of England, and on increased house-building in the south and east of England.
* The Government's definition of a Sustainable Community describes more than just provision of houses. It describes a place to live that is inclusive, safe, well run, well designed and built, environmentally sensitive, well connected, thriving, well served and fair for everyone.
* The main policy interventions include:
- Designation of four 'Growth Areas' and 29 'Growth Points' to accommodate a significant increase in the rate of house building
- Selection of nine 'Housing Market Renewal Areas' to rebalance the housing market in low-demand areas through a combination of refurbishment, demolition and house building
- Refurbishment of all social and some private housing to bring it up to a "decent" standard
* Since CLG was created in May 2006, taking on the functions of the ODPM, the term 'sustainable communities' has been used less by the department in official communication, but the policies that underpin the original aims remain.

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