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'Stigma' biggest obstacle to sustainable housing

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The stigma of living in social housing and government deference to the needs of the economy are two of the biggest barriers to sustainable housing, delegates at a conference on the subject were told last week.

Roger Levett, a director of sustainable-development specialist cag Consultants, asked 'What is the economy for? It is for quality of life.' He defined sustainability as 'about integrating society and the environment and using the economy as the tool for doing it. For as long as we treat the economy as a factor in its own right, we are doomed.'

He went on to define ways of measuring sustainability in terms of 'ecological footprint' (looking at the whole-life ecological consumption of a building in terms of the 'land equivalent' needed to sustain it), and of 'environmental capital'. This approach examines all the aspects of environmental loss that would be caused by development, from reduction in the carbon balance due to cutting down trees, to loss of local amenity. It then demands that substitutes are found for all the losses. 'This approach can make it explicit to developers what the environmental sustainability costs are, and can make it cheaper to use the site we want them to use.'

Levett also warned that the 'space intensity of living is increasing': smaller households still need a bathroom and kitchen apiece; single people need their own bedrooms; cars and domestic equipment occupy space; and people have more possessions. He recommends: shared services and facilities, such as city car clubs; renting rather than owning trail bikes, skidoos and surfboards; making moving house easier and reducing job insecurity.

He argued that the way to encourage people to stay in cities was to 'achieve the (putative) rural attributes in town: clean air, tranquillity, safety, community, nice services patronised by nice people'.

Chris Withnail, group director of Sanctuary Housing Association, warned that 'demand for social housing in its present form is collapsing in many places'. In the past year vacancy rates in his good-quality housing stock have risen from 12 to 19 per cent. The problem, says Withnail, is that increasingly sophisticated consumers want choice, value, quality and brand identification. 'Social housing equals welfare housing,' he said. 'It means you are a failure.' If there is to be loyalty to social rented housing, 'future and existing customers have got to want, not need, our product'.

The conference was organised by Hunt Thompson Associates, architect of the Millennium Village.

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