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Housebuilder – February 2005

As you arrive back to your desks after the Sustainable Communities Summit, you will no doubt be struggling to absorb the content of numerous workshops on the likes of creating partnerships, renewing housing markets and, of course, building sustainably. Mark Smulian considers the purpose of the summit, and where the government's ambitious plans are headed.

Anything that can get deputy prime minister John Prescott, chancellor Gordon Brown, and home secretary Charles Clarke to make the trek to Manchester must be a subject the government takes seriously. And they have all been at the three-day Delivering Sustainable Communities Summit, from which you are likely just returning as this issue hits your desks.

Sustainable communities were written off by some as an eccentric preoccupation of Prescott's when he first enthused about them in 1997. But the policy took definite shape when he published the Sustainable Communities Plan in 2003 as a blueprint for where housebuilding and associated development should take place.

The plan is nothing if not ambitious, and it offers plenty of opportunities for housebuilders so long as they fit in with its strictures on density, design, use of brownfield land, and development of communities. It addresses the regeneration of stricken deindustralised areas in the north, management of potentially massive growth in the south, preservation of the countryside, improvement of social housing and reduced car use.

One does not have to agree with the vision to see the logic: joining up government action to channel economic growth with the minimum impact on the environment and maximum effect on social exclusion.

But there is an obvious problem that no-one is likely to be sufficiently ill-mannered to mention in Manchester: will it outlast Prescott? The heavyweight cabinet line up suggests that the idea could survive his departure, but the success of sustainable communities will only be fully evident decades from now, beyond the tenure of any serving politician.

Paul Murrain, senior design director at the Princes Foundation and a key figure in the sustainability debate, says: "I don't think it would fade away without Prescott, as it has gone beyond that point and I don't think a change of minister or even party would see it dropped."

Elements of sustainability have been around for a decade or so, such as the sequential test before building on greenfield sites is permitted. But it really took shape following Prescott's Urban Summit in October 2002. Then an entire new regional dimension was bolted on last year in the shape of the Northern Way, a project aimed at regenerating the key cities of northern England in the belief that they will drag up the region's economic performance.

taking the car

On top of these specific projects is a general aim to steer development to brownfield sites, usually within existing urban areas, where residents need not be dependent on their cars.

So far, the priority has been putting structures in place to ensure the plan can be delivered. In some cases these are wholly new development authorities, in others formal partnerships of councils, quangos and community organisations.

For the northern cities there is as yet only a general intention that councils will collaborate to regenerate city regions - essentially travel-to-work areas that sprawl untidily across established boundaries.

While there has already been plenty of new building, this will pale into comparison against what is to come. And Prescott is expected to use the summit to convince the private sector that the government has created the conditions in which it can get on with the job.

The summit is intended by the ODPM to perform the dual roles of a stock-take of what has been done since 2002 and a forum to allow ideas to spread about what might be done in future. So far, the ODPM is moderately pleased with progress, but it admits that work still needs to be done to get the planning system geared up to efficiently deliver the development needed. And it is also looking for better value and quality from the housebuilding industry.

Builders have impressed the ODPM by exceeding the brownfield building target and by building at greater densities. But it thinks the standard of new housing is inconsistent, both in terms of density and design, and that too much is still merely acceptable rather than of high quality. Continued pressure can be expected from the ODPM on these fronts.

The summit programme stresses the need to ensure that planning guidance targets for new homes are met in the south east - with the implication that this will happen whether or not councils like it - and also by "ensuring that the construction industry has the right skills to deliver."

Just in case any developer feels tempted to point to rolling green fields on which this extra housing might profitably be built, the summit programme sternly points out: "The majority of new housing will be on previously developed land, rather than on greenfield. The area of land designated as green belt land will be increased or maintained in each area. Developments not meeting density standards in the south east will be called in [to the ODPM]."

One less familiar conference theme is "liveability". This includes cleaner streets, improved parks and better public spaces, all of which the government considers essential to any self-respecting sustainable community.

A sample of summit delegates, probably including some housebuilders, will be tracked in a survey by consultant PwC to try to trace how ideas that arise at the summit influence people and lead to practical results. "Practical" is a summit buzzword. The ODPM insists that it will offer neither wordy resolutions nor speakers ramming the government line down delegates' throats, but a chance for ideas to develop and best practice to be shared.

So how have sustainability ideas spread so far? Linden Homes' director of sustainable communities, Ivan Ball, is sure that sustainability is here to stay and that it would be futile for builders to try to fight it. "It is clear what the thrust of policy is, and you either embrace it or you disappear," he warns.

community sites

Linden's sustainable community projects have been developed on six large sites so far, each with around 350 homes plus space for offices, community facilities and amenities and need sites of this size to achieve critical mass. "They provide a community in their own right rather than fitting into a community," Ball explains.

Although builders with experience of the early sustainable communities projects tend to be enthusiastic, there are problems. One housebuilder, who prefers to remain nameless but who is involved with one of the largest sustainable developments, says there is considerable waste caused by public sector prevarication and inability to leave builders to get on with building. He wants to hear solutions to this from the summit. He claims: "A lot of the money that is being provided is being used on consultants, who are creaming off lots of it. "I get very frustrated about being held up increasingly by requests that are not about making the project a success but just reflect some official's personal preference."

Making sustainable communities work requires harmony between the private and public sectors, and housebuilders will be hoping that Prescott will make clear how this will happen, when the money will be available and where developers should look to in order to get obstacles removed.