Tuesday, June 03, 2014

How to Solve the Housing Crisis Sustainably

Britain has a housing crisis. Politicians are calling for the building of garden cities and for permitting building on formerly protected greenbelt sitesBusiness Secretary Vince Cable has told the Daily Mail that "building on green belt land should be 'encouraged' provided it is done in a 'proper way'". This follows the publication by the Department for Communities and Local Government of a prospectus for "Locally Led Garden Cities" which invites local authorities to put forward their ideas for how they wish to develop garden cities.

This all sounds positive, since, in the abstract, we love the idea of garden cities, with pleasant wide tree-lined avenues and residents tilling their gardens to grow their own food whilst cycling to nearby shops. But we all know how nice-sounding government policies frequently end up being hijacked by developers who wish to turn a tidy and quick profit and the dream, eventually, turns sour.

So, how to guarantee that these proposed new types of development are genuinely sustainable? 

The only way, as anybody involved in sustainability accounting or energy management will tell you, is through monitoring and measurement of pre-established metrics, backed up by the threat of planning permission being revoked should agreed benchmarks not be reached. In other words, we should permit building on green field sites only if they can establish that they are truly sustainable in a measurable way. This approach could just as easily be adapted to urban living, in several potential and already existing ways:
Such an approach would build on a Welsh policy that has just achieved its first success and is showing its potential to spearhead a revolution in the way we can achieve sustainable development.

The success is also a personal one for a family that has just realised its dream. The Moodys are a family which lives on a smallholding between Caerphilly and Cardiff. Theirs has become the first One Planet Development in Wales - and the world - to receive permanent planning permission. Called Nant-y-Cwm farm, it is home to Dan and Sarah Moody (below) and their five children who had already been working their 16 acre plot for four years and were seeking retrospective planning permission from Caerphilly Council.

Dan and Sarah Moody outside their one planet development

They decided to apply for planning permission under One Planet Development, a forward thinking policy by the Welsh Government which provides a way for people to live and work on the land with social, economic and environmental benefits. In addition to meeting planning regulations, applicants are required to produce a detailed management plan and ecological footprint analysis which demonstrates their commitment to sustainable living, including how they will provide for at least 65% of their basic household needs from land based activity within 5 years.

Dan and Sarah are overjoyed by their success, which they put down to hard work and their close links with the local community. Cllr Ken James, Caerphilly County Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Planning and Sustainable Development, commented on the application by saying: “We were satisfied, following lengthy discussion with the applicants that their proposals complied with the One Planet Development policies, subject to a number of strict conditions”.

Jeff Cuthbert, the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, has also visited the site, which is in his constituency, and expressed his pleasure at seeing what they have achieved.

This is important for a number of reasons. The policy is one of which the Welsh Government should be extremely proud. Wales has an objective, set out in its sustainable development scheme One Wales One Planet, that: "within the lifetime of a generation, Wales should use only its fair share of the earth’s resources, and our ecological footprint be reduced to the global average availability of resources - 1.88 global hectares per person in 2003".

One Planet Developments should, according to the Welsh Government guidance, initially "achieve an ecological footprint of 2.4 global hectares per person or less in terms of consumption and demonstrate clear potential to move towards 1.88 global hectare target over time".

So the practice offers a transition to a more sustainable way of life by providing a way for people to live and work on their own land with measurable social, economic and environmental benefits. By using a verifiable metric - ecological footprint accounting - it is setting a precedent for assessing planning applications and other developments. In this sense, it is far from being of minority interest only.

A body has been set up to support both those who want to make planning applications under this scheme, and those in planning departments who have to process them, often a job that proves to be outside their training and experience. Called The One Planet Council, it is an independent voluntary body that also sees itself as furthering understanding amongst the public and policymakers of how the tools and practices enabled by this policy can further Wales' overall sustainable development requirements and, by example, the rest of the UK. I am a founder member. The body aims to work together with all those with Local Planning Authorities, policy makers, academics, landowners, and those already living on and planning to live on One Planet Development sites.

Jane Davidson, previously the Welsh Minister responsible for the introduction of the One Planet Development policy and now Director of INSPIRE at the University of Wales Trinity St David's, helped to launch the Council at the Royal Welsh Showground Spring Fair on 17 May (below).

Jane Davidson launching the One Planet Council

Standing alongside the Moodys she said: "I'm so delighted to hear about the Moodys’ success. Wales is unique in having a national commitment to support those who want to demonstrate that it is possible and desirable to live in a way that reduces their impact on the environment. I hope that the success of this application will pave the way for others who want to pioneer living lightly on the land and in doing so help others think about actions they could take to harness local resources better”.

Group photo at One Planet Council launch

At the launch of the One Planet Council, left to right: Dan and Sarah Moody, Stefan Cartwright, Samantha Minas, Jane Davidson, Eduardo Bracho, Mark Waghorn and Pete Linnnell. 

The planning guidance behind the policy holds open the door for One Planet Developments to occur in an urban context, but remains unclear on how this could be achieved. Some architects believe that ribbon development, for example, where there is green field countryside behind housing on transport links, offers one opportunity for this to happen. So does the concept of garden cities.

The OPD policy supports other policy aims of both the Welsh and Westminster Governments, including provision for affordable housing, reduced subsidy for agriculture, promoting healthy living, promoting sustainable communities and carbon reduction.

For example, in addition to producing meat, eggs and a wide range of fruit and vegetables, some of which is sold to local residents, the Moodys' smallholding also supports different local causes such as Kaleidoscope, a Cardiff based charity supporting people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

So here are the 12 main advantages of One Planet Development

Ty Solar, an affordable solar home1. Affordable housing
The UK housing market is currently one of the most inflated in Europe, and inequality between those who own a home and those who don’t is rising. For many, especially first time buyers and those who are on a low income, owning their own home is beyond reach. One Planet Development supports the construction of simple, well functioning dwellings tied into sustainable land management. These are intrinsically much less expensive to build than the average home, even when constructed to a conventionally accepted standard.

2. Sustainable, low impact homes
One Planet homes must be constructed from sustainable or recycled materials, locally sourced where possible for minimal environmental impact. Buildings must be energy efficient and generate all of their own electricity and heat renewably. Innovation and different styles of construction are encouraged as long as they comply with the stringent planning standards and meet building regulations. Dwellings should have a relatively low visual impact and be easy to take down at the end of their lives.

Rachel Shiamh's straw bale home3. A reduced burden on the public purse
The purchase of land and creation of a One Planet Development is self-funded from the beginning, unlike some types of agriculture which receive subsidies.

4. Creating genuine livelihoods
One Planet practitioners are required to meet 65% of their basic household needs from land based activity within a 5 year period. A robust management plan is required at planning application stage to show how these needs will be met. The result is a subsistence livelihood with the possibility to develop new streams of income from education and other related activities.

5. Increased land productivity
One Planet Developments promote a more sustainable level of food production. A study of organic smallholding-type food production found the level of produce per annum to be 3.5 kg per square metre, equating to 35 tonnes per hectare. This is over 4 to 5 times greater than average UK wheat yields of around 7-8 tonnes per hectare on the best soil.

6. Beneficial to wildlife and the land
One Planet practitioners have a duty to conserve and enhance the biodiversity, cultural heritage and landscape of a site. The existing ecology is carefully preserved and enhanced by planting hedgerows, orchards and wetlands. Produce is grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides or artificial fertilisers by using methods such as companion planting, soil care and encouraging natural predators of pests.

7. Beneficial to the local community
One Planet living encourages outreach and sharing. Surplus food and other land based produce and crafts are sold locally to generate income, which is beneficial for the community by reducing food miles and by offering affordable, fresh, healthy food. Educational courses and open days may be offered. Developing land based businesses may offer employment opportunities.

8. Beneficial for Wales
One Planet Development is open to people from all walks of life. The more developments that use different approaches to sustainable building, land management and living, the more exemplar models others will have to learn from. The Welsh Government has made a bold commitment to a sustainable future for current and future generations. This initiative can help Wales become an inspiration to people around the world.

9. An efficient use of natural resources
Energy is harvested using the latest renewable technologies. Water is sourced on site from springs, streams or rainwater collection, and wastewater is processed on site with the nutrients reused to encourage biodiversity and fertility. Composting of all biodegradable waste and non-biodegradable waste is minimised, re-used where possible and re-cycled off site as a last resort.

10. Promoting health and well-being
There are numerous documented benefits of daily contact with nature that would reduce the burden of those living in One Planet Developments upon the National Health Service. These include: improvements in self-esteem and mood, recovery from stress, blood pressure, heart rate, vitamin D deficiency, the benefit upon health of consuming fresh food, as well as others such as improved community building.

11. Supporting sustainable transport
One Planet Development supports living and working on the same site. Ideally, sites should be located within walking or cycling reach of public transport and local communities to reduce vehicle dependence. Electric vehicles can be charged from sources of renewable power.

12. Measurable sustainability
One Planet Development is quantified by ecological footprinting, which shows how much of the Earth’s resources people are consuming. When households reduce their own ecological footprints this helps their country reduce its overall footprint. Practitioners are required to log specific inputs and outputs so that data can be monitored for planning and research purposes.

As I said, ecological footprint analysis is not the only way to measure and verify sustainability, but it is one with a policy foothold in the UK. Sustainability needs measurement, it needs to be quantified, it needs to be monitored in order to guarantee that it is truly sustainable and not merely used as a greenwashing exercise. Even if you don't believe that we collectively need to bring down our ecological footprint, I hope I've made it clear that there are many other benefits to supporting this type of activity and approach.