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Viewpoint - It is time to deliver green communities

AGENDA - We must transform ourselves into a force for change, writes Ian Burnett

SINCE the Government published its Communities Plan, an entire industry seems to have evolved purely to discuss sustainable development.

Conferences and seminars earnestly examine the concept and reach the despondent conclusion that it is difficult and costly.

If we continue in this vein, our narrow window of opportunity to improve the lives of UK citizens will slam shut. Despite £100 billion of investment across construction every year, the greatest thing we will have achieved is another cycle of building. As we know from the results of the slum clearances of the 1930s and the subsequent regeneration programme 30 years later, delivering new buildings does not automatically deliver sustainable communities.

We will remain locked in this cycle of decline, demolition and regeneration until we change the way we build.

But isolated pockets of sustainable development do exist ? excellent examples of financial, social and environmental practice can all be found.

In Leeds, a whole-life approach to building 10 primary schools has resulted in an 11 per cent saving on the cost of each facility. In Clacton, creating a school with no corridors has led to very low levels of bullying. In York, creating 18 'green' homes has resulted in heating bills as low as £1 a week for social housing tenants and greatly reduced CO 2 emissions.

This is down to careful planning and shared knowledge, and there is more we can do.

In the report Failing Communities: Breaking the Cycle, Wates recommends practical ways in which contractors, customers, Government and designers can achieve more effective progress.

For contractors the message is simple: identify and deliver the tools customers need to build more sustainably.

This means offering a whole-life approach for every type of project, and demonstrating the cost savings, quality improvements and reduction of environmental impact it can deliver.

It means recognising that the process of construction can stimulate the social networks and local economy every community needs.

It also means setting challenging targets for waste recovery and recycled content of materials and working with the supply chain to deliver them on time.

As an industry we are compliance-driven. It is hard to identify a time when we have taken the lead by offering solutions to our customers' problems without them being written into a contract.

But far from protecting our interests, this reactive culture is holding us back. Young people enter construction because they want to create lasting and sustainable communities.

Nobody wants their work to degenerate into sink estates but this is exactly what will continue to happen until we stop talking and start acting.

Sustainable communities are not a luxury, they are essential to the UK's future prosperity. Where examples of sustainable development exist, they have been achieved by individuals who have continually driven their vision forward, overcoming scepticism, resistance to change and obfuscation.

The construction industry has a choice: it can either maintain the compliance-driven approach that has restrained it for a century and positioned it as a backwards looking profession, or it can harness the skills, expertise and vision that exist in pockets at every level and transform itself into a positive force for change.