Momentous changes are needed to make development economically, environmentally and socially viable.
Jackie Whitelaw reports.
Last month three senior government ministers issued a plea to the construction industry to help it develop low energy, low pollution, sustainable communities. They claimed that current planning, design and construction practices will be environmentally, socially and economically unworkable over the next 50 years.
Sharing a platform at the Better Buildings Summit, deputy prime minister John Prescott, environment secretary Margaret Beckett and trade secretary Patricia Hewett pledged a new approach to the way development is tackled in the UK.
Developers have created too many dismal, soulless dormitory towns and suburbs, Prescott thundered: They should create local communities. There is no point building 250,000 homes in the south east if residents have to drive miles for work, leisure, education and health care, polluting as they go, he said.
This ties in with the government's ambition of a 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Buildings contribute half the UK's carbon dioxide load and the government is making a major push on insulation and thermal efficiency.
Creating not just sustainable houses but sustainable communities will involve the introduction of increasingly tough building regulations and planning guidance, according to one of the key contributors at the event, FaberMaunsell business development director Peter Head.
The government is considering whether to impose zero emission targets on new buildings when it introduces changes to the building regulations in 2005. At the same time higher national standards on water conservation will be set. Guidance on developing in flood plains is already in place, the government is putting its support behind renewable energy and it has an integrated transport policy of sorts.
Engineers are being offered a huge opportunity, Head says, to play a central role in delivering sustainable development.
'People think sustainability is just green buildings, ' he says.
'It's not. It is a balancing process delivering social, economic and environmental performance.'
It involves a change from the way the benefits of development have been assessed in the past, he explains.
'The industrial revolution was driven by engineers responding to social and economic demands. The environment was the resource to fuel the revolution. Now we are in a place where we recognise the environment is an equal part of the equation and we need to find ways forward that aren't at the expense of the natural world.'
However, he adds, this does not involve protecting the environment at the cost of progress.
The Regional Development Agencies have undertaken to carry out social, economic and environmental cost-benefit analyses when drawing up their transport policies (NCE 16 October). For four or five years now, isolated companies have been talking about 'triple bottom line' accounting.
But gauging what is important and how to weigh social, environmental and economic impacts is not easy.
What is needed is a guide-book to help planners, developers and politicians identify what is sustainable development and what is not. Head is hoping to come up with the answer.
He is a commissioner on the London mayor Ken Livingstone's Sustainable Development Commission:
Each commissioner is charged with developing a project to further the cause of sustainability.
Head's task is to establish a voluntary code of practice for sustainability which all the London Boroughs can use as a yardstick when they are considering whether or not to award planning permission.
'At the moment boroughs are creating supplementary planning guidance, but there is no consistency and interpretations are all different, ' Head says.
The code would set standards against which the performance of a scheme from inception to decommissioning could be measured for its impact on social development, the environment and the economy. This could include maximum travel times to, say, a hospital within its catchment area; or the distance of local shops or a library from a bus stop. It could cover creation of local jobs and long term amenities, and energy use.
'The code will provide a level playing field throughout London and speed up the planning process, ' Head believes. It is a year away from being produced but Head hopes its first outing will be on the Lee Valley London Olympic development.
'There is a huge opportunity for civil engineers, ' Head says. 'They sit in the middle of the development process. They are the ones who say how to do it. They can drive the environmental revolution.'