17 Dec 2010 09:12:07
Scrapping regional plans irresponsible
When we talk about sustainable design, that means everything from masterplanning at a macro level right down to detailing, the material skirting boards are made of. You've got to look at the complete picture – it's pointless to try and build really sustainable eco-homes within a completely unsustainable development or masterplan.
Most of the UK's suburbs were developed on the premise that everyone will be driving a car, with no local transport or public services. From a global perspective, suburban single-family homes, each on their own plot of land, is possibly the most unsustainable form of development. Even within London there are huge swathes of existing semi-suburban land that is underused and often completely neglected. There is so much that could be done to densify these suburban areas and equip them with more facilities and services – then we wouldn't have to develop on greenfield sites. Inevitably, there will be planning objections. But I think we all have to wake up and realise the cost of our twentieth century lifestyles on the planet, on our children, on our children's children.
The idea of scrapping regional strategies and devolving planning decisions to councils, as the coalition government proposes to do in its Localism Bill, seems crazy. Every major European city that has made significant progress in the last twenty years has had a broad strategic plan and vision, rather than one borough working irrespective of what's happening in the borough next door. That was what was happening when I first moved to London from Canada. Thatcher had been in power for ten years and London was a mess. The infrastructure and public realm was so run down, it felt like a third-world country. It only began to sort itself out with the creation of the GLA and the arrival of Ken Livingstone as Mayor in 2000. In 2004, London as a world city finally had a plan and has been steadily transforming since, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
The London Plan acknowledges that a holistic, integrated approach is needed to achieve genuinely sustainable cities with a consistently high standard for quality of life. The Netherlands is a great model for this. It’s a country with very high population density and high quality of life that has had to deal with coordinated infrastructure, transport planning and land use for centuries – if they didn't, the whole country would flood. It would be impossible for the Netherlands to even consider abandoning regional strategic planning.
Government legislation has to lead the way if the development industry is to really tackle climate change in a serious way. In West Germany in the mid 1970s, the government legislated double-glazing to all existing buildings and houses except protected historic structures. Grants and low interest loans were provided for window replacement, insulation and refurbishment. So the whole country just got on with it. Germany's building stock is renowned for its high quality and extremely low carbon emissions, as opposed to the UK's appalling record. I find it shockingly irresponsible that the government would abandon clear regional development policies and sustainability criteria for our cities. A devolved (blinkered) approach to development will enshrine parochialism into government legislation and make sustainable city building less achievable.
The Mayor of London's Housing Design Guide is a very good thing, particularly in setting decent minimum space standards (although the EP standards are even better). I think Boris Johnson is torn between his interest in architectural excellence and his instinct to support investment in a high-quality public realm, and his party's desire to make development easier and cheaper for businesses. There's an interesting conflict there. Elsewhere, Housing Minister Grant Shapps has talked about relaxing regulations for housebuilders. It's just a matter of priorities and values. If the government takes a laissez-faire attitude toward regulations and relaxes standards and planning legislation to assist developers, that's simply a clear statement of its values: increased profitability for private businesses and individuals over long-term, sustainable quality of life for its citizens. Not even to mention beauty...