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Homing in on the key issues of housing and sustainability

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No one could fail to notice the headlines and column inches in both the professional and national press: once again government is expressing an interest in construction. John Egan has been called in to review and report on 'sustainability'and Kate Barker on housing. Both have been lobbied by professional and commercial interest groups and, of course, the Prince's Foundation. Though I'm not sure that the latter has to do too much lobbying - even hardy annuals like Prescott enjoy engaging with royalty. There have also been reports of a government minister with a portfolio on design advising us to learn from the bright lights of the fashion industry. So what to make of these three government engagements with construction?

Doubtless the above minister was as much inspired by the speed with which fashion happens, as to its relevance to the design of the environment. Can we realistically expect any ambitious minister, in a government besotted by the presentation of figures, to be attracted to an industry where, as the norm, projects take the minimum of two years from inception to completion? To catch the eye they need 'speed architecture'; quick fixes, dramatic computerised imagery, immediate inhabitation by happy voters. That is why the said minister thinks we have much to learn from the likes of Wayne Hemingway's passionately hyped branding of a speculative housing estate in Gateshead. Clearly, links to the fashion world of the founder of Red or Dead are more likely to help shift boxes to prospective voters than references to Alice Coleman's ideas on 'defensible space'. The profession might learn much from Hemingway's fee structure.

Kate Barker has, contrastingly, engaged with the key issues in housing: those of supply and demand, choice and quality. While supply remains limited, it is relatively easy for volume housebuilders to sell whatever it suits them to build. They can then claim that the volume of their sales reflects consumer satisfaction.

Until there is some element of purchaser choice, it's difficult to talk of quality. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy of planning and a fascination with an 'Olde England' that never existed helps to keep down production.

Of most concern is the government's focus on the sinisterly titled 'Sustainable Communities', a euphemism for new towns. If government is serious about the environment then it must first deal with existing development. That is where the vast bulk of the woefully underperforming existing stock is located, where most of us will continue to live and where there is at least some infrastructure. These same areas are, however, made difficult, blighted even, by the nation's fascination with conservation; in this case not of resources but of the status quo - Theme Park Britain. It should all be about 'densification'not conservation (nor indeed 'Disneyfication'); it's not glamorous but it's key.

As 'Sustainable Communities' is an Egan project, is it surprising that it is somewhat misdirected? After all, whoever believed that buildings were like cars, except in the case of Egan's Jaguars that were neither on time nor budget? Perhaps it's flattering that cars mimicked buildings by encouraging ideas of uncertainty of use.

Perhaps not - as the critic Colin Davies recently remarked, 'even cars aren't built like cars'. Last time out, the industry embraced Egan's initiatives and there was a healthy desire to question previously accepted orthodoxies. There was also an unhealthy willingness to embrace crude ideas of measurement so beloved of the audit-driven mandarins of government. The difficulty in debating with this government is that your views are only heard when you're 'on message'. Unfortunately, in an attempt to demonstrate progress and curry favour, it appears at times that the professions slavishly follow.

I am intrigued as to where the tsar of sustainability will go with regard to construction and the husbandry of the planet's resources, but what interests me more is the response of the construction industry. Will we lead or will we follow?

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