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Unsafe as houses

Building more dwellings to reduce the housing shortage is now seen, by some, to be environmentally unsustainable

The ODPM's Sustainable Communities Plan aims at releasing large areas of land for new housing, aided and abetted by the chancellor, who commissioned Kate Barker of the monetary policy committee to find ways to help finance it. Meanwhile it turns out that DEFRA has commissioned a quickie report 1from independent consultants, led by Entec UK, to assess the plan's environmental impact.

The parliamentary committee looking into the sustainability of the government's sustainable communities proposals say they only discovered the report by accident, it being quietly posted on a website with no announcement.

The DEFRA report calculates that building all the houses suggested by Barker could cost up to £8.4 billion and increase carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 20 per cent.

Environmentalists have also warned that ministers should not let the Thames Gateway project become a 'Trojan horse' for developers hoping for major releases of greenfield sites - the CPRE has even called for an immediate moratorium on greenfield development in the area.

The DEFRA consultants were asked to quantify the implications of Barker proposals but they also highlight policy areas where government thinking needs strengthening. They conclude that much of the pressure for new sites will be on the urban fringe as well as on previously developed land. It also spells out the need for energy saving and water conservation initiatives.

Consistent with this, the Countryside Commission sees opportunities for linking an improved urban fringe with better countryside management and the potential for off-site manufacturing and sustainable design and construction methods.

While the ODPM is seen as having made a good start, it has not so far committed itself to new housing meeting specific new standards.

As well as supplying 'green' lobby fodder, the DEFRA report insists that some form of greenfield or development tax is needed, possibly combined with tradable development rights and brownland development incentives.

'While in theory they should reflect differences in values at the regional and local levels, in practice a national tax that captures such variations in an average figure is likely to be more feasible, ' they say. The ODPM has already commissioned research into the economic value of an average hectare of urban fringe, while the DEFRA report says the need for new sites underlines the case for a review of Green Belt designations.

It is unhelpful, then, that another parliamentary row has shown up discrepancies in how much Green Belt land there is. Parliament was told that a statistical review has thrown up an additional 25,000 hectares, but planning minister Keith Hill said the figure was more like 19,000, with a further 12,000 hectares proposed in emerging local plans.

These numbers were conjured up to see off opposition claims that government policy would lead to a significant loss of Green Belt in the South East. A Norfolk MP claimed that four councils accounted for more than 90 per cent of the 'new' Green Belt land, while a south-coast member reported considerable controversy arising from various proposals for high-density housing.

This will run and run until the whole concept of Green Belts is rethought.

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership. Contact brian@bwcp. co. uk or visit www. bwcp.

co. uk References 1.Study into the Environmental Impacts of Increasing the Supply of Housing in the UK - see http: //statistics. defra. gov. uk/ esg/reports/housing/default. asp

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