Meeting the challenges of the UK’s urban shift

The lack of an over-arching urban environment policy to ensure commercial, housing and transport development complies with environmental limits for air pollution, water and energy consumption and carbon emissions is "astonishing" and must be addressed urgently, says a new report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.1 Geraint Roberts reports

The study began in 2005, two years after the government announced a major house building programme, the Sustainable Communities Plan. The proposal could result in 3.3 million new homes being built in England by 2016.

The RCEP says this building boom, together with decisions on urban regeneration, regional development and investment in infrastructure, will "influence the environmental performance of new and renewed urban areas for decades, perhaps centuries, to come".

Current state of play
Urban areas are the source of a significant proportion of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, but the density of buildings and infrastructure makes them more efficient in terms of per capita energy consumption, which is lower in many cities than the national average. Moreover, some methods of reducing carbon emissions, such as combined heat and power schemes and integrated public transport, are particularly suited to urban areas.

Within urban areas buildings account for a major proportion of CO2 emissions - 70% in the case of London. For the country as a whole, the energy used in constructing, occupying and operating buildings represents about 50% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Air pollution will "continue to be a problem" in urban areas, says the report. Urban traffic levels rose by 10% during 1994-2004 and the government expects the volume of motor traffic to increase by 40% in urban areas between 2001 and 2031. A particular problem is particulate emissions, with "increasing evidence" that long-term exposure even to low levels has significant health effects.

The report limits its assessment of waste in urban areas to construction and demolition waste, which is mainly responsible for the 18% increase in the UK’s total arisings between 1998/99 and 2002/03. This upward trend is "worrying since the planned expansion of urban areas could increase it further".

The quality of urban rivers is mostly much lower than that of rural ones, with just 30% being of good biological quality. Many have been straightened to run through man-made channels and surrounded by impermeable surfaces, which means surface water can enter the river in sudden bursts, causing peaks and troughs in flow rates and rapid changes in temperature and chemical loads. Ageing, inadequate and leaky sewerage networks, which frequently overflow, exacerbate these problems.

There are already water shortages in some parts of south-east England, including areas targeted for further urban development.

The Environment Agency is concerned that water companies have made inadequate provision for the forecast growth in total household demand and per capita use over the next 30 years.

The report urges the government to set environmental constraints for water use, water quality and flood risk just as it has for air pollutants and carbon emissions.

The government’s target for 60% of new homes to be built on brownfield land by 2008 is being exceeded, with 74% built on such sites in 2005.

But according to English Partnerships, there could be a shortage of easy to develop sites and a growing backlog of difficult locations unless further measures are taken. Such issues could be particularly important if they clash with the planning phase of the government’s housebuilding programme.

No strategic overview
But "despite numerous prestigious and small-scale examples of good news stories, there is clearly a lack of progress in terms of creating environmentally sustainable cities", says the report.

According to RCEP chair Sir John Lawton, "Commissioners are astonished that, on the eve of the new phase of urban regeneration and expansion, we lack an over-arching urban environment policy to coordinate the provision of housing, transport, energy and other vital services."

"Tinkering with any one of these issues is bound to fail. We can and must do better if we are to meet environmental challenges and improve the health and well-being of our citizens."

The RCEP agrees with the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on the need for water management plans, for action by Ofwat to make water efficiency a priority, for water companies to reduce leakage to environmentally sustainable levels, and for the removal of barriers to sustainable drainage systems (ENDS Report 377, pp 5-6 ).

With respect to buildings, it agrees with the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and the Sustainable Development Commission that homes built or refurbished to high environmental standards should receive favourable treatment with respect to council tax or stamp duty - something addressed by the latest Budget. All three bodies also want improved building codes and regulations as well as their enforcement.

On renewables, the RCEP’s recommendation that the government sets "Merton-style" targets for developments to generate some energy from micro-renewables "is consistent" with the SDC’s call for a microgeneration commitment to be placed on energy suppliers. Under the third phase of the energy efficiency commitment in 2008-11, energy suppliers will be free to choose which measures, including microgeneration, they want to use to meet carbon reduction targets (ENDS Report 379, pp 37-38 ).

All these measures "represent the absolute minimum set of responses that the UK government and devolved administrations ought to pursue without need for further inquiry", says the RCEP.

But its main concern "is that there is no coherent government policy on the urban environment as a whole" and, despite the fact that most people live in such areas, no specific policy for reducing the impact of the urban environment on human health.

EU legislation has been weaker in this area than other environmental policy areas because spatial planning and housing are generally handled at member state or regional level. Last year’s EU thematic strategy on the urban environment largely consisted of voluntary measures and disappointed environmental groups.

There is "little evidence", says the report, "that government at any level is tackling the quality of the urban environment and the quality of life in an integrated way". Most environmental and urban policies focus on different media such as soil, air and water, or on problem areas such as biodiversity, waste and transport. In particular, there is "no comprehensive means for systematically integrating health and planning in all urban areas".

As an example, the report looks at the web of connections between increased car ownership and use in urban areas and a range of environmental and social outcomes from air pollution and diffuse pollution to the growth of shopping malls and the closure of local shops (see figure).

It concludes, "We are far from understanding the nature and extent of such connections or developing an approach to planning that provides both flexibility and the capacity to integrate relevant responses."

To help create an over-arching policy on the urban environment the government needs to ensure environmental objectives are introduced into mainstream policies from the earliest stages, and tackle areas of overlap and conflict between policy areas by bringing interest groups together. Environmental objectives should also be a core part of regional spatial strategies.

The Department for Communities and Local Government should also take a share in the public service agreement on climate change that is currently shared between the environment, industry and transport departments.

Borrowing Environment Secretary David Miliband’s language, it calls for an environmental compact or "contract" between central and local government on environmental issues. This would give authorities a clear remit to take environmental action by upgrading authorities’ current discretionary powers on well-being to a statutory duty to protect and enhance the environment. It would also provide a way of integrating measures across existing plans and strategies, for example on air quality and transport.

The report also makes several recommendations in relation to specific environmental issues:

Air quality: The RCEP applauds recent proposals for a low-emission zone in London (ENDS Report 382, p 38 ). It urges the UK government, devolved administrations and local authorities to introduce further measures to cut traffic in air pollution hotspots and to "bear down heavily" on the most polluting vehicles.

The report says several recent studies indicate that children living close to busy roads have a 50% increased risk of respiratory illness including asthma. Particulates and nitrogen dioxide often exceed maximum recommended levels in urban areas with heavy traffic congestion (ENDS Report 385, p 24 ).

The report also calls for health impact assessments to be made a statutory planning requirement as part of sustainability appraisals, strategic environmental assessments and environmental impact assessments. The Department of Health backed the call.

Brownfield land: The government should review the environmental impact of brownfield policies and the 60% housing target because some sites are important wildlife habitats. The rate of development on such sites is threatening some of the UK biodiversity action plan’s targets.

However, the Campaign to Protect Rural England says the target should be revised upwards to minimise pressure on the green belt and other areas of countryside.

Sustainable drainage: The RCEP wants the rest of the UK to follow Scotland’s example and provide a greater role for sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) - such as green roofs, swales and ponds - that absorb and moderate run-off.

It says the Water Industry Act 1991 should be amended to ensure SUDS become the preferred option and are incorporated wherever feasible in new urban drainage schemes within five years. The government should also clarify ownership and responsibility for long-term maintenance of all elements of drainage systems and promote SUDS in strengthened planning policy statements and guidance.

Transport: By the end of 2008 Local Transport Plans should include statutory targets to cut urban traffic. Before development plans are approved, the government should publish a clear assessment of transport infrastructure needs for all proposed housing growth, how they will be funded and the environmental and health impacts of meeting those needs.

Energy supply: The planning policy statement on climate change currently under development (ENDS Report 384, p 41 ) should require all new developments beyond a certain size to include an approach to energy planning that takes all opportunities to optimise the use of low-carbon technologies. Although the government has told English authorities it expects them to require new developments to include such technologies, the London Mayor said last year that local councils will be required to insist that 20% of energy in major new developments comes from renewable sources.

Water: The water companies should be required to produce long-term plans for sewage treatment in consultation with the environment agencies. The plans would identify the action needed to deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure, and should be taken into account by planning authorities.

Ofwat should set more stringent leakage targets for water companies supplying urban areas in southern and eastern England. The Scottish Executive should set similar targets for Scottish Water. All domestic buildings should have water meters, beginning in the areas shown to be water-scarce in environment agencies’ assessments.

The RCEP supports the Institute for Public Policy Research’s call for a statutory water efficiency commitment on water suppliers (ENDS Report 381, p 6 ), along the same lines as the one for energy efficiency. It also wants a new Water Saving Trust to be established, instead of giving such responsibilities to the Carbon Trust and Energy Saving Trust, as suggested by the Science and Technology Committee.

Energy in buildings: The current uptake of energy efficiency measures is not sufficient to offset rising demand for energy from households, says the report. But it says a 60% cut in CO2 emissions from housing is feasible through improving insulation and windows, increasing energy efficiency of lighting and appliances, and installing micro-renewables and low-carbon technologies.

As "a matter of urgency", the government should extend the sustainable homes code, which applies to new homes, to cover all buildings. It should also strengthen the building regulations and the code’s standards, in respect of energy and water efficiency, over a pre-announced three-yearly cycle.

The report also urges the government to ensure all public sector non-residential buildings meet the BRE Environmental Assessment Method’s "excellent" standard. A promise to do this was included in the government’s sustainable procurement action plan, issued earlier this year.

It also wants fiscal incentives, such as stamp duty or council tax rebates for energy-saving measures in buildings. The recent Budget included measures to provide exemptions from stamp duty for some new zero-carbon homes for five years (see pp 4-5387003).