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AN ACADEMY OF HOT AIR?

ajenda - The Academy of Sustainable Communities was launched to much applause and back-slapping in Manchester last week, writes Clive Walker. But, although it promises a lot, will it actually carry any clout or just end up as a talking shop?

It is virtually impossible to debate urban renewal without someone hurling the 's' word. Sustainability tops the regeneration agenda these days; so much so that the government dedicated an entire conference to the issue last week in Manchester. The centrepiece of the Delivering Sustainable Communities Summit was the launch of an Academy for Sustainable Communities (ASC). It has been set up in response to widespread concern that Britain doesn't have sufficient expertise to build the sort of homes people want to live in. But, behind all the applause, doubts are already beginning to circulate over the exact purpose and remit of the ASC.

At the summit, deputy prime minister John Prescott hailed the ASC as a 'place of new ideas and thinking' (AJ 3.2.05). He insisted it would plug the burgeoning skills gap in leadership and project management across a broad sweep of professions working within sustainability. According to Prescott, so-called life-long learning, cross-occupational training and skills development will be at the heart of the ASC. It will also focus on strategic lobbying - influencing and sharing research. But, crucially, the ASC will not directly provide training or qualifications - something that has raised a few eyebrows across the industry.

The template for the academy is the Egan Skills Review, outlined last April, which called for a cultural shift in the skills, behaviour, knowledge and training of more than '100 professions' working in sustainability. Sir John Egan emphasised that prosperous sustainable communities were achievable if all sides agreed clear lines of responsibility and common working practices, underpinned by a robust skills base. He also stressed the overwhelming need for a common and accessible working language to streamline communications between professions (such as architecture), local authorities and the public. While an academy was heralded as one way of addressing this, it was by no means Egan's only radical suggestion. He also urged the creation of a common strategy for accomplishing sustainability, for which local authorities would have responsibility. He also pressed for a shake-up of planning rules, not least the introduction of a pre-planning application system.

Depending on which side of the sustainability camp you sit, the ASC is more of a nod towards Egan's vision rather than a full-scale rollout. What's more, it's unclear whether it will be a mere talking shop or if it will have sufficient muscle to make a real impact. This is the concern of Conservative MP Peter Ainsworth, chairman of the House of Commons' Environmental Audit Committee. Ainsworth hit the headlines just weeks ago by mauling the government's track record on sustainability. Prescott's five-year vision for sustainable communities (characterised by the now infamous, and some would argue impossible, £60,000 house) was singled out as 'little more than window dressing'.

Ainsworth takes aim Now, Ainsworth has turned his guns on the ASC, claiming its remit is narrower than that proposed by Egan because it focuses too strongly on skills. Ainsworth argues that the ASC needs clout where it counts: at local authority and local industry levels. 'If it inculcates and addresses the urgent need to see new skills and technologies driven down to these levels, then it will have a purpose. What we don't want is a talking shop or exemplar without powers, ' he says. 'The ASC challenges just one issue on sustainability. What about the north-south divide, water-shortage in the South East, reforms to the planning system, the impact of landscaping, and so on?' Part of Prescott's masterplan is to create a European forum for exchanging sustainability know-how, with the ASC playing a key role. In particular, Prescott wants the academy to join forces with the Congress for the New Urbanism in the US and other leading centres of sustainability. This has set alarm bells clanging at the RIBA. Bill Gething, chairman of the institute's sustainable futures committee, believes the UK should concentrate on cleaning up its own backyard before 'preaching sustainability to countries that are doing it a lot better than us'.

Gething adds: 'Egan said he wanted an academy running by the end of 2004. All we are getting is a lot of puff. It worries me when I read that the ASC is meant to inspire or provide a learning framework. What does that mean? We need practical input, not hot air.'

Hail to the chief Naturally, the new ASC chief executive, Chris Murray, has rebuffed non-believers. Murray, who has been seconded to the ASC from CABE, where he is learning and development director, insists the ASC is much more than a talking shop, although he agrees it won't provide direct training or qualifications. Instead, it will work with 'learning providers', like universities and even the RIBA, to foster skills development. And, despite its institutionalsounding name, it won't be introspective and obsessed by research. 'It will have a brain, it will think, but its objective will be delivering and making a difference, ' says Murray.

And while the academy won't be armed with statutory powers, nor will it be a humble paper tiger, declares Murray. He draws attention to CABE, which, despite not having legal clout, commands 'massive influence and is respected because it does its job'. In fact, says Murray, the argument for sustainability is so compelling that parties from all sides of the issue will be eager to support the ASC's objectives. 'This is something that is going to be irresistible, ' he assures.

Leeds, or more precisely the Yorkshire Forward headquarters in Holbeck, has been chosen as the ASC's base. Yorkshire Forward's environmental executive director, Jan Anderson, has greeted the news with obvious pleasure - not least because it has been sited in a real, live community regeneration project (Holbeck is a notorious red-light district), so it will get a baptism of fire. However, being known as an academy does have connotations of academia and that could put some people off, admits Anderson. 'The ASC will need to establish itself quickly, so that no one is in any doubt about what it is, ' she concludes.

Clearly, that is going to be more easily said than done. The ASC's brief is full of promises, but scratch away at the surface and it rapidly becomes apparent that the initiative is thin on substance. It is disappointing that Egan's original vision has been sieved, and what we are left with is? well, no one's exactly sure, but at least it is a step in the right direction.

Being an election year, we can expect to see a raft of sustainability initiatives from all political persuasions. The million-dollar question is whether the promises will be converted into practice after the votes are counted.

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