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Sustainable housing, the UK’s second biggest problem?

With the battle to deliver the government’s ambitious housing target of 300,000 new homes per year – and with consideration of environmental impacts, climate resilience and net gains even for biodiversity – ongoing, EA’s latest event provided a forum for those delivering solutions to share the latest ideas with those charged with policy-making for, planning and building the dwellings of the future.

Housing delivery in the UK is presently lagging some way behind the official target, with 235k energy performance certificates lodged for new builds for the year ending June 2018. “Behind closed doors we have been told by various government departments that, Brexit aside, housing is the single biggest political issue that will face this country over the next 20 years,” Ross Polkinghorne, partner at law firm Burges Salmon, told delegates gathered at the Building Sustainable Towns & Cities conference and exhibition in central London last week.

There are a number of factors inhibiting the delivery of housing targets, with regional programme manager for the One Public Estate Michael O’Doherty pointing to the need for supporting infrastructure – such as roads – to be delivered, as well as materials shortages and lack of skilled workers in the construction industry. “The UK simply does not have the capacity and skills in the traditional construction sector to build homes at the rate required,” he said. The planning system has also been widely cited as a further barrier to increasing housing supply.

In a bid to make the market more development friendly, the government has implemented a number of funding, policy and programme-based changes. Another speaker, acting head of the housing infrastructure fund (HIF) at Homes England Kate Taylor, explained that initiatives such as the £5bn HIF offer funding to support infrastructure for new housing, aiding the allocation of sites and sparking wider private sector investment.

She also highlighted the £3bn home building fund which supports housing development and associated infrastructure delivery, stating that “our loan sizes can vary [between £250k to £200m] meaning we can look at a wide range of projects”. To date the scheme has contributed to the delivery of over 110,000 homes across the UK, with Taylor noting “we work across the country and don’t just focus on London and the South East”.

Delegates also heard how the One Public Estate initiative is working across the public sector to foster a more strategic approach to managing land and other assets. It is hoped by 2020 the programme will have helped release land for a further 25,000 homes.

NPPF and biodiversity

2018 has seen some important policy and regulatory developments which will help frame housing delivery going forward, most notably the publication of the much anticipated revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (D+I 26-Jul-18). The revamped NPPF’s ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ encompasses economic, social and environmental objectives, including a goal to improve biodiversity. Strengthening requirements for biodiversity net gain in national planning policy was a key commitment underlined at the start of the year in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan (EA 16-Jan-18), with the revised NPPF stating that the planning system should achieve net gains for biodiversity.

Lindsay Roome of Defra’s Natural Environment Directorate reported that biodiversity net gain (BDNG) is already being targeted by a number of developers including Barratts, Berkley and Redrow, while several local authorities including Warwickshire County Council and Lichfield District Council also boasting strong net gain policies. “We’ve had developers telling us they are seeing the benefits of this approach as they can sell their homes for more,” she added.

In a bid to help make BDNG more quantifiable and accessible, Roome explained to conference attendees how a refined metric has been developed which uses the quantity, distinctiveness and condition of existing biodiversity features on a site prior to development to calculate biodiversity units. These units are then compared with the amount calculated post-development to identify if a gain has been achieved.

But the 25 YEP does not stop at biodiversity net gains and has set a long-term aim for new developments to deliver environmental net gains more broadly. Natural capital improvements such as flood protection, improved air quality and recreational space will be expected. So it may not be long before specialist consultants from fields such as water, waste and air quality see increased demand in natural capital accounting.

According to Roome, the Environment Agency, Defra and Natural England are also collaborating on producing a metric – similar to the biodiversity metric – covering a broader range of environmental features and factors. This they hope will make calculating environmental net gain possible for non-specialists, with Roome stating: “We are trying to get the balance right between making something which is easy to use, for local planners, etc…but that is also accurate enough.”

However, with EA having canvassed opinion from those attending the conference who work on the front-line of housing delivery – both within and alongside developers – the consensus appears to be that this is unlikely to completely replace the need for external experts as developers typically prefer to involve an independent consultant where environmental assessments are concerned.

Moving away from the minimum approach

A number of delegates on the day also noted the continued reluctance of many public sector and some private sector organisations to deliver beyond the minimum environmental requirements, which is a barrier to the uptake of the best practicable environmental solutions. With this in mind, Froome outlined how her team is exploring another 25 YEP commitment – to action a consultation into whether BDNGs should be mandated.

“We are currently looking at what the government could do in this space,” she said, “providing consistency and a level playing field to ensure that at an aggregate level we can have net gain overall through development.”

If mandated any organisations still dragging their heels when it comes to BDNG will be forced to step up their efforts. Given the attrition of in-house environmental planning expertise within local authorities as a consequence of the austerity era, this all seems to suggest the market for specialist biodiversity services has the potential to grow and broaden quite significantly.

Homes of the future

Another factor which could considerably alter the state of play in the sustainable housing field is the rise of modular and panelised fabrication techniques. With the ability to be largely constructed off-site these homes offer the advantage of relatively speedy assembly times, thereby reducing costs and environmental impacts such as air quality and noise, as well as regulating demand on the UK’s construction workforce.

Until recently many lenders were reluctant to make mortgages available for this type of build creating a major barrier to delivery. But as director of UK research at property management and development group JLL, Nick Whitten, noted this is no longer the case: “It’s now assumed that at least the top 20 biggest lenders in the UK are now comfortable lending against these [offsite] homes”. Such developments also offer benefits in terms of reducing waste and arguably utilise more sustainable building techniques. So, with the issue of finance largely overcome it seems reasonable to expect prefabricated building methods to soon become the norm.

The issue of climate resilience also featured repeatedly during the course of the day with many speakers underlining the need to better prepare housing and infrastructure for the increasingly variable and extreme weather. Ramboll infrastructure and regeneration director Chris Fry looked at some of the rapidly emerging design approaches to improving climate adaptation through the digital revolution.

According to Fry, the Internet of Things and next-generation sensors could facilitate self-maintaining sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) and blue green infrastructure as well as adaptive (robotic) flood defence systems. But he also noted: “Although there are some opportunities for big disruptive changes, in established cities with finite budgets incremental innovation is more likely.”

Source: Environment Analyst