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Housekeeping - what is a sustainable community?
Housebuilder – February 2005

'Sustainable Communities' is the catchphrase of the moment. But what does it actually mean? Does building them increase property values? Mark Smulian grapples with the concept, and finds out how the development industry is doing the same

"Community" is one of those words that politicians think is warm, cuddly and positive, conjuring up visions of sturdy villagers meeting around the parish pump before adjourning for a refreshing pint of mead in an inn where everyone knows everyone else.

If such places ever really existed, they have long since faded from all but the most isolated rural areas since industrialisation and commuting changed the way most people lived. Housebuilders responded by building speculative homes in suburbs for the middle classes, or social housing under contract for the traditional working class. For decades there appeared to be plenty of land and no opposition to building the roads to link these homes to workplaces and amenities.

"Sustainable" is another cuddly word, conjuring visions of processes that somehow keep running without harming the environment. Put the two together and "sustainable community" has become the slogan of politicians and planners grappling with ways of meeting demand for homes, jobs, transport and resources.

Changed political attitudes to the environment are the key factor driving sustainable communities.

Two pressures came together. The first, based on increasingly alarming scientific claims about the future of the planet's resources and climate, drove a pro-environment public sentiment that saw traditional sprawling urban growth and its consequent consumption of resources as a problem.

The second, driven by less elevated concerns, saw the relentless growth of suburbs as a threat to those who already lived in them, or in the adjacent countryside, as increasing development incorporated them into urban areas.

This created the nimby movement and led to political pressure against planning permission for conventional low density housing.

These twin fears developed in the Tory years but then intersected with Labour's preoccupation with the social housing estates of its political heartlands. Even when in reasonable physical shape, these have become inhabited largely by poor people as those with jobs and money chose to move elsewhere.

Labour wanted to end the practice of isolating social housing in large estates, and decided to encourage new affordable homes in mixed developments, where they would be visually indistinguishable from adjacent private homes. By these convoluted routes, public policy arrived at the idea of sustainable communities, the key feature of which is that developments should minimise their impact on the environment. Since the government can use planning policy to promote sustainable communities and discourage traditional developments, housebuilders are going to have to understand them.

a sense of place

They are usually built on brownfield land, at high densities, where possible from environmentally friendly materials, and designed to make car use less intense by offering local amenities and jobs. But there is something less tangible too, which concerns designs that encourage social mixing and an elusive "sense of place" that can sit awkwardly with modern mobile lifestyles.

Oddly enough, one of the drivers of this approach, sometimes called New Urbanism has been the deeply traditional figure of the Prince of Wales. John Thompson chairs the Royal Institute of British Architects' (RIBA) urbanism and planning group, and cites the prince's mid-1980s challenge as the first time concerns about greenfield building and lack of community feeling were widely noticed. He says that since then the policy of building at higher densities on brownfield sites has become steadily entrenched.

Thompson says: "There are very few people in politics who talk about urbanism, but that is what we need because how you live can be enhanced or destroyed by the quality of the place where you live."

He believes there are good examples of sustainable communities, but as yet "not any large quantity of high quality developments". The good news for housebuilders is that "good quality urbanism increases land values", says Thompson, with buyers willing to pay higher prices to live in well designed and serviced communities. This means that as new urbanism develops and potential residents become used to it, projects should become viable without subsidy and return decent profits.

Richard Donnell, head of residential research at property firm FPD Savills, does not entirely share this view. He says: "Sustainable communities should be attractive places to live, and if this theory about being able to walk everywhere is right they would be very attractive. But what happens to land values compared with a more standard approach?"

Donnell points out that while these attractions might ultimately increase housebuilders' profits, "you have to ask at what point that would kick in, and I would say that if you had a development of 3,000 homes it would be when 1,500 were built and sold. Before that you might be selling a sense of place but buyers could not see and touch it and would have to take it on trust."

Paul Murrain, senior design director at the Prince's Foundation, set up by Prince Charles to promote good urban design, says sustainable communities are"not a single idea, but part of a continuum over the years," stretching back to the Victorian social reformer Ebenezer Howard.

Murrain believes that examples of sustainability are all around us, in the cities, market towns and villages that grew before World War 1. "In almost everything built earlier than the 1920s you could take your pick from examples of sustainability," he says. "There was mixed use, local industry, high density housing, open spaces that supported sustainability rather than working against it and good public transport. Then we chucked it all out and went for low density and made towns car dependent."

market shibboleths

He dismisses the claim often made by housebuilders that the market demands low density suburban homes as "the biggest load of rubbish". Murrain says: "The market is made up of what customers choose and if all the investment has been ploughed into suburbs, and those have better houses and schools and everything else, of course people are not going to come back into cities." Once those investment priorities are changed, public taste will change too, he expects.

Generally speaking, a great deal about sustainable communities is a leap in the dark - from the efficacy of modern methods of construction through to whether residents really will live a locally based life. But there is a powerful political, professional and scientific consensus behind the movements driving sustainability and it will be a brave builder who seeks to resist.

Bellway: negotiating a sustainable community

One person who believes he has a sustainable community up and running is Keith Haddrell, managing director of Bellway Essex. The housebuilder entered a joint venture with Ipswich Council to use the former municipal airport to build 1,000 homes, 300 of them affordable, with a pub and restaurant and plans for a 2.5ha business park and a sports park.

Haddrell found that buyers were reluctant to purchase homes near those that were identifiably social housing. To solve this, and also to achieve integration, Bellway brought in its standard range of homes "with perhaps more bells and whistles than normal for social housing," and told housing associations that if they wanted their homes to be identical to private ones they would have to pay extra, which they did.

Tenants got better homes and "it has benefited us because land values do not fall when no-one can tell where affordable housing is," says Haddrell.

The site is designed so that no home is more than 300 yards from a bus stop, and the service was subsidised by the council while the development was being built. There is a link to the A14 but car use is noticeably lower than average.

The site has a school and doctor's surgery, and Bellway has made a one-off payment to the council to cover 20 years' maintenance of community facilities and communal areas - a fund which housing associations also contributed to.

Even the drainage is sustainable, with stormwater returned to the aquifer rather than removed by sewer.