Housing emerged as the key issue at the conference on 'Thinking Ahead: Green Policies for a New Century' organised by Socialist Environment and Resources Association (sera) on Saturday. The government's predicted requirement for new housing in the new century implies a significant increase in consumption of land and resources which is inescapable, even if the Urban Task Force's recommendation for development of brownfield sites is followed.
According to Jack McBane of Groundwork, the only acceptable way forward in housing development is through the adoption of a 'Segal-style' approach, where houses are built and owned by their occupants, run on solar energy, and allow occupants to grow their own food. This might sound drastic, but less so in the light of McBane's assertion that 'the market economy is on its last legs, thank God', with the exhaustion of fossil fuels imminent. Cathy McKenzie, a vice-chair of sera, agreed that 'western capitalism has a number of significant flaws which don't allow sustainable development, but suggested, by contrast, that 'we're stuck with it and have to make the best of it'. The delegates focussed on ensuring that environmental policies form the crux of the Labour party's re-election manifesto.
As Michael Avery, of the rspb, pointed out: 'Trashing the environment does have economic costs,' and this needs to be put across both to the treasury and to the public at large. Housing design probably represents the most immediate channel by which ordinary people become aware of the urgency, and extent, of environmental issues, and correspondingly, one of the most difficult areas of change. Both Lindsay Colbourne, of Projects in Partnership, and Jack McBane, whose organisation is involved in the rehabilitation of communities around the ex-coalfields of South Yorkshire, agree that local involvement is crucial to generating change. According to Colbourne, arguing for a more holistic, integrated approach, there is a serious problem in the fact that 'planning is not allowed to look at social solutions to problems around housing' (eg marriage breakdown) leading to smaller households.
There was a consensus that 'environment has to become mainstream', both in the public perception, and in the way that it is handled the by government. At the same time, the campaign for environmental awareness has to be focused especially on the bungalows of middle England. But what will probably provide the vital catalyst for change is the new political context created by the European Union and devolution, working in tandem. As Sarah Boyack, msp, pointed out, Scotland is keen not to be fined for failure to meet eu/uk environmental targets for air quality, energy consumption, recycling and so on. This has led to an immense political effort by the four-month- old parliament to 'catch up' on the environmental issue, which will no doubt be noted by other parts of the uk.