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Sustainable development: an opportunity for progress

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An important change was made to the final NPPF in March – the inclusion of a stronger definition of sustainable development, referencing the Brundtland Report and the 2005 UK sustainable development strategy. This puts a far greater emphasis on its role as a balanced arbitrator between economic, social and environmental needs. Sustainable development can still be a fuzzy concept for many people – it’s often hard to see the practical solutions to situations where these interests appear to be in direct competition.

Practical examples can really help to illustrate the meaning of sustainable development and the many opportunities that can arise from it. Housing, for example, is an issue that straddles all three pillars of sustainability: if we haven’t got enough housing of sufficient quality, people suffer, notably the poor; if we build too much, badly, or in the wrong places, our wider and immediate environment can be harmed; post financial-crash, we are all too aware of the housing industry’s role in a boom-bust economy. Here is clearly an area where all three factors are in play – so how can we find a path that fulfils the core requirement of sustainable development? That is, to ‘enable all people… to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life, without compromising the quality of life of future generations’ as set out in the Brundtland Report.

One of the consequences of devolution is that it allows areas of the UK to pursue different routes, giving all constituent countries the opportunity to implement successful policies and discard the unhelpful. Across the border, the Scottish Government have recently concluded a consultation on its sustainable housing strategy.

Homes that don’t cost the earth

There are nearly 160,000 households on the waiting list for council housing in Scotland. Here, as across the UK, there is a need for housing, and affordable housing at that. And yet, in 2010, the Scottish Government introduced rules that mean new homes must reduce carbon emissions by 30% from 2007 standards. The recent consultation states that standards will be further reviewed this summer. In 2010, house builders argued that the new standards would slow house building – a knee-jerk reaction might be that such regulation prioritises the environment over the social impact on the poorest in society.

However, the benefits of efficient housing are not only felt in terms of national and international carbon emissions. Making all houses, including the existing stock, more efficient is an important part of policies directed towards reducing fuel poverty. 36% of households in Scotland live in fuel poverty – but such households are very hard to target effectively. Current policies involving winter fuel payments to broad sections of society are not particularly well targeted – an estimated 75% of households entitled to a grant are not living in fuel poverty. Equally, the more efficient our houses are, the less energy infrastructure we need to build. This reduces the impact on our environment and our energy bills. Improving efficiency standards and retrofitting houses are policies with environmental, economic and social benefits.

Delivering sustainable development

But can fuel efficient housing, built in a way that allows communities to thrive, ever be built in volume, with support from housing developers? The National Trust is an organisation better known for preserving historic houses than building new ones, but we have been involved in a number of house building projects. In 2004, in partnership with Redrow Homes and BryantHomes, and in consultation with the local community, we began building 750 homes in Stamford Brook, near Altrincham, Cheshire.

Houses at Stamford Brook

Houses at Stamford Brook

The development was based on a comprehensive Master Plan which formed the basis of the planning application and was essential to work with a wide range of local and regional interests to achieve a housing development that met everyone’s needs and aspirations. The project also included creation of new public open space, landscape and ecological improvements and especially the naturalisation of a 1.8km stretch of the Sinderland Brook, to benefit wildlife and provide a semi-natural urban drainage system, and give the Stamford Brook housing development a special character and its residents access to a beautiful natural environment.

The development set out to design and construct all 750 homes to a higher standard of building regulations than in force at the time – so a crucial purpose of the development was to trial and implement with volume housebuilders the building regulations that Government would require to meet energy performance standards in the future. A particular target was the regulations on thermal performance.

The project therefore worked to very high environmental standards, undertook researchand used its findings to make suggestions about the future direction of policy and regulation. The level of air-tightness achieved in all the Stamford Brook homes was a significant improvement on UK standards, and demonstrated the capacity of traditional masonry construction to achieve the standards necessary for the production of low and zero carbon housing. These higher standards were achieved by careful attention to detail in the house design and in construction methods, and through application of skill and care by the contracted trades and building workers – giving greater job satisfaction and craft skills improvement. The research also demonstrated the significant levels of heat lost through party cavity walls, and how this can be mitigated by using relatively simple methods. Were these methods applied to existing and new dwellings with party cavity walls, CO2 savings of around 850,000 tonnes per annum could be realised in the UK.

It was really important to everyone involved that the development was commercially viable – while the developers inevitably spent more time and money on the project than they would normally, they benefited hugely in terms of the outcomes and lessons derived from the development. It gave the National Trust an understanding of the commercial realities of development too.

Perhaps the most interesting lesson of the project comes from the housing developers – everyone involved in the project, including the developers, the builders and the contractors, agreed that better regulation and enforcement is required if we want to deliver high standards and avoid a situation where the lowest common denominator rules.

The bigger picture

But, aside from the link with sustainable development, what have efficiency standards got to do with planning? Now that more powers are held locally, and the Government is encouraging local authorities and communities to have a positive approach to planning, it may well be the case that environmental standards are, to an extent, set at local or neighbourhood level, as long as they satisfy the viability test. Equally, the retro-fitting of existing housing stock with efficiency measures is impacted by the planning system. External retro-fit insulation has impact on the aesthetics of a house, and without clear local planning guidance, such projects could be held back. A lack of clear guidance could also lead to inappropriate insulation being applied to traditional buildings, changing the appearance of our historic environment.

In the Stamford Brook example, we can draw comfort from the knowledge that co-operation between environmental groups, house builders and communities can produce good housing of high environmental standards that people enjoy living in and that still provide commercial return for the developers. The Scottish Government’s attitude towards sustainable housing, viewing energy efficiency measures as a social and environmental good, is equally encouraging for those wishing to see sustainable development implemented is a positive and practical way.

Both these examples show that real opportunities for progress exist in following the principles of sustainable development in policy and practice – benefits in one area do not have to equate to disadvantages in another. True sustainable development is about reaching the best possible outcomes for the economy, society and the environment.

To read more about the Stamford Brook development, why not read Volume: Delivering sustainable housing – learning from Stamford Brook?

Anything to add? Please feel free to comment and share your concerns below and you can join the conversation with us about planning on Twitter (@nationaltrust) using the #planning4ppl hashtag.

Blog by Ellen Reaich, External Affairs Assistant

#planning4ppl

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