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Unsustainable demands

As London mayor Ken Livingstone calls for more sustainable design, we look at how this might affect the planning system

New regulations set up to promote sustainability are pre-judging scheme proposals and threatening the workability of the planning system.

My occasional calls for planning not to duplicate what is regulated by other legislation are beginning to look increasingly forlorn.

The mayor of London has issued draft supplementary planning guidance (SPG) on 'Sustainable Design and Construction' 1 (responses by 3 June). The document is intended to provide a detailed framework for London boroughs, so the SPG will therefore become applicable to all but the smallest of new developments in the capital - the guidance suggests it will apply to any residential development of 10 units and over. In the short term, boroughs will have some discretion in the extent to which they adopt it.

Two levels of sustainability are set: an 'essential level' and the 'mayor's preferred standard' based on current industry good practice. All major planning applications in the Greater London area will have to prepare assessments that demonstrate how proposals have responded to the relevant sustainable design and construction standards.

They will have to show, for example, that consideration has been given, in order of preference, to: passive design (essential); solar water heating; combined heat and power (preferably fuelled by renewables);

community heating; heat pumps; gas condensing boilers; and gas central heating. The mayor says that all developments referred to him should meet minimum standards and will have to provide justification in any places where they fall short of his preferred standards.

Where the London mayor leads, expect the rest of the UK to follow.

Interestingly, the mayor is not only asking for development density to be maximised, but to exceed density or plot ratios set out in the London Plan where public transport capacity allows, so long as development respects the local context and communities' concerns.

A sufficient response to this might be some bland statement promising to use best endeavours. At a strategic level, reuse of previously developed land, and maximising that use with high densities, are already wellaccepted approaches. But problems are likely to arise when a planning application has to demonstrate that consideration has been given to 'the use of prefabricated elements in order to reduce total energy used in the construction phase, speed up assembly, improve quality and minimise defects and wastage', for example.

The use of consolidation centres (large storage areas pre site-delivery), the source-location of prefabricated elements and improved recycling are similarly laudable considerations, but are they planning considerations? And how can they be seriously addressed at the conceptual and planning stages of a development proposal without incurring an unsustainable level of high-risk investment in design work when the principle of development has yet to be established?

I have already been on the receiving end of a demand for a BREEAM assessment before a planning application could be registered as valid by Camden council. Admittedly, this was just a device to delay its workload and was withdrawn when challenged as being an inappropriate and disproportionate requirement, but maybe not for much longer.

Not only are simple outline planning applications a thing of the past (I will come back to this next time), but for a planning application to require a fully specified construction scheme to be considered is to add costs, risks and duplication to the system and to add further to the burden that planning weighs on the economy.

We architects might shrug this off as not affecting us immediately and anyway potentially adding to our role and responsibility for projects - even clawing back some control of application-preparation from the growing circus of environmental, traffic and planning specialists we are having to get used to. However, for some clients the threat is immediate.

As the AJ technical section has pointed out, there is a likelihood that the new Part L will cause severe disruption to schemes where planning has been obtained, but full Building Regulations approval has not. This is because, if a full Building Regulations approval has not been granted or a 'substantial start' has not been made on site before December, designs will still have to comply with the new Part L rules.

This is premised on the new regulations being introduced at the end of the year, as is anticipated. On this basis, an 'insubstantial' start on site for a building relying on a building notice, or one without full approvals, may require significant changes in order to comply with the new regulations.

For example, those schemes with extensive glazing may have to be reconfigured to suit the new rules and resubmitted for planning consent. In general, the timescale and process is as set out in the old DTLR Circular 03/2001 2 (which is well-nigh impossible to find on the ODPM website).

Architects should review their pending trays and advise their clients of this risk. The TCPA's Guide to Sustainability Appraisal 3 which deals with major development projects as well as plans and policies, is worth reading in anticipation.

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen partnership, see www.

bwcp. co. uk

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