Is Private Sector Creating Sustainable Housing Developments within the UK?

by Jason Shaw

Section 1: Sustainability

Sustainability became a byword as the ecological environments of the earth’s wealth were shown to be depleting, and decision leaders wanted a shortcut to mask attempts to maintain the greatest possible continuation of human life.

Sustainability is therefore characterised in a number of forms and means, but the World Commission on Environment and Growth describes sustainability as a capacity to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987). Various approaches are often used to assess the necessary approach to sustainability, like Wackernagel and Rees’ (1996) ecological footprint, which compares the sustainability of the region with the overall products, resources, resources and land it uses as necessary towards it carrying capacity.

Whitehead (2011) has suggested two models dependent on priority: balanced and hierarchical. The holistic sustainable model proposes an equitable treatment and a position for the ecological, social and economic powers, whereas the hierarchical model proposes a high priority for the ecological forces, accompanied by social and, lastly, economic forces (Appendix A & B).

Is Private Sector Creating Sustainable Housing Developments within the UK?

The biodiversity problem stemmed from the awareness that the natural world is readily manipulated for the gain of usage, but the strong economic production would not necessarily contribute to the potential regeneration of the damaged habitat back to its original state (Ayres, van den Bergh and Gowdy, 1998).

The discourse on sustainability started when major shifts in the natural world as well as the catastrophic impact of climate change development and use on habitat destruction and failure to fulfil basic human needs were understood. In 1987, the World Commission on sustainable development reported Our Common Future highlighting alternative paradigm for humanity to address environmental degradation and world poverty. Within the next twenty years sustainable development became a key policy objective for governments and international bodies, business and even individuals (Hobson, 2004).

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Incidentally, UK has a national sustainable development framework as one of the best in the world (Porritt, 2009; Hobson (2004). The positive news was that the UK was not isolated with its absence of robust environmental intervention, since other big post-industrial countries had already seen unsuccessful measures (Hobson, 2004).

Section 2: Importance of The UK Private Housing Industry: Private/Public Accounts For …Percentage

The UK Housing

Social housing in the United Kingdom is distinguished by private sponsorship of housing associations mediated and directed by relevant government departments. It is further identified by Oxley (1998) as posing several difficulties, including low income for tenants dependent primarily on state benefits; macroeconomic reasons that contributed to decreased budget support; continuing pressure to cut public expenditure on housing; significant backlog of housing repairs and maintenance work by councils; and a strong demand for further social housing (673). The most clear perspective was that there were liquidity and investment challenges, as the government allowed private equity and non-profit groups to become licenced social landlors. City authority housing has been shifted to the owner-occupancy and to housing associations or corporations where entities are established by a local authority to a newly founded company which owns and maintains “arms length” housing from the local authority (674).

In 1981, 28 per cent of English housing stock was controlled by local councils, but this has declined since 1988, when the government changed the position from housing contractors to strategic enablers. By 1994, just 18 per cent of the housing stock was within local government and by 1994 the construction of council houses had been limited to only one per cent. This was the product of government housing investment projects or HIPs. It evaluates tenders for the usage of capital as well as permits borrowing and expenditure on house-related operations.  Local authorities were decreased of permission to borrow money for housing development which resulted to massive reduction of building council houses (Oxley, 1998).

Central government contributions have served as the main route for subsidies to council housing using the housing revenue accounts or HRAs. Costs and payments on on-going council housing all pass through the HRA while costs of financing debt and maintenance, as well as management expenses are paid from HRA. Incomes includes rent and subsidies but starting in the 1980s, rents were increased while subsidies were cut (Oxley, 1998).

The Right to Buy legislation of 1980 allows 20% of the sales receipts per annum for reinvestment but this has been adjusted to 25% by 1989 but 75% was used for redeeming debt or set aside for future debt redemption, and for accounting purposes, this has been labelled as “negative public expenditure” (Oxley, 1998, 675). 

Rent pooling also contributed to the council housing’s finances as notional surpluses rental income exceeded historical costs but these have been used to offset deficits on other parts of the stock (Oxley, 1998). An internal subsidy, the system maintained lower rent on newer properties and surpluses on local housing authorities occurred. However, these were not allowed to be finance non-housing activities and used only to pay housing benefit costs so that the Treasury saved money at the expense of local authority housing (Oxley, 1998).

Housing Associations increased their share of the English housing stock from 2.3 to 4.1 by 1994. These associations are non-profit organisations managed by voluntary committees and thereby part of the private sector. In this instance, they have become the most favoured way for the government’s social housing investment. Oxley (1998) suggested that “Development is concentrated in the hands of the largest housing associations,” (675). They have become very important in the increase of social rented stock and provision of new social housing and they were under the supervision of the Housing Corporation. The Housing Corporation was charged with allocating public money and promotes the development of the association especially to private sector lenders (Housing Corporation, 1994).  Whilst there is constant supply of new homes regulated by the UK government through private enterprise, these are seen as less affordable even where demand is increased (Maliene et al, 2008).

Section 3: Government Targets for Sustainable Builds

International and local governments have fully come to understand the important role of nature and the environment on governance as a natural asset and resource with implications on human and animal health, trade, community well-being, climate change, and many more. This led to the necessity for the government to address its responsibilities beyond their means but also reach out to various sectors in society to contain if not lessen environmental problems that humanity has created (Bishop and Flynn, 1999).

Greening of Government has been pursued by the Conservative and Labour administrations. It is emphasised in the Section 121 of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (Wyn Jones, 1998). The Common Inheritance White Paper is seen as a coherent effort of the British government to address action, policies and targets in relation to the environment. The formulation was led by the Department of Environment with contributions from the Cabinet committee. It made two commitments to improve government cooperation with regards to environment policies: retain the cabinet committee set up to produce the White Paper, and nominate a Minister in each department to be responsible for the department’s policies and programmes. As the then Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Heseltine committed, “It is important to remember that the White Paper did not just set out a programme for my Department, but for the Government as a whole – We now have in place some of the most sophisticated machinery to be found anywhere in the world for integrating environment and other policies (Heseltine, 1991).

The Labour Government of 1997 retained and upgraded the previous administration’s Cabinet Ministerial Committee on the Environment or ENV and the Green Ministers. It created the Sustainable Development Unit in the DETR which functioned as a cross-governmental resource but according to the Environment Audit Committee, rhetoric was not equalled by deeds (EAC 1998). Response to section 121 was the immediate establishment of a “Sustainable Development Unit” within the DETR (DETR, 1998).    

The European Commission was also credited to influencing sustainable development governance although majority of goals has been seen as economic in nature as exemplified by the Regional Technology Plan and European Regional Development Funding or ERDF (Bishop and Flynn, 1999). 

The unified governance structure developed processes for the achievement of policy priorities, with little discretion on the part of local councils. This lead to the finding that ‘Higher-level governments impose penalties at lower levels when they refuse to fulfil the specified functions or deviate from procedures’ (Bishop and Flynn, 1999, 65). Monitoring enforcement is the priority at upper levels of government in attempts to reduce disputes in order to accomplish government priorities (May et al, 1995). In situations where there are separate regimes between the Whitehall and the city council, different legislative objectives contribute to bribery and the usage of non-elected agencies to bypass local government (May et al, 1995). The approach has been directed towards less focus on legislative prescription and more dependence on municipal councils for potential environmental policy and sustainability. The Cooperative Inter-Governmental Policy hopes to establish and enforce mutual dedication among various levels of government to achieving environmental targets, as well as to encourage policies that facilitate and not weaken sustainability (May et al, 1995).

Littlewood and While (1997) suggested that the Agenda 21 of the United Kingdom is instrumental to achieving sustainable development in Britain through its administrative structure changes. Under section 121(1) of the Government of Wales Act 1998, the National Assembly of Wales is tasked to “make a scheme setting out how it proposes, in the exercise of its functions, to promote sustainable development.” It is tasked to establish institutional structures and operational processes that will facilitate and promote sustainable development across all its areas of responsibility (Bishop and Flynn, 1999). This is further pursued through the Environment Agency and the Countryside Council for Wales (Bishop and Flynn, 1999). However, emphasis has been seen on economic growth, thereby “sustainable development” was replaced by “sustainable growth” in policy papers such as mentioned on the White Paper “A Voice for Wales” (Secretary of State for Wales, 1997).

The Sustainable Development Charter Group of Wales is a group of 25 environmental NGOs, key government agencies, and the Environmental Planning Research Unit at Cardiff University with the main task to shape the policy implications of the devolution process and coordinate attempts to lobby Parliament. This group led the lobbying and advocacy for sustainable development for governments not only in Wales but among other local agencies as outlined below:

  • Adopt five guiding principles for development: decentralisation, renewal, collaboration, incorporation and sustainability (Prescott, 1997)
  • The vision statement should include the key goal of encouraging sustainable growth
  • Adopt as its key responsibility to preserve and improve the environment;
  • Pursue an integrated strategy to ensure that environmental and social costs are integrated as equally significant as economic costs across all policies;
  • Accountability and integrity should be assured in both government systems and environmental and social information should be widely accessible to the public.
  • United Kingdom foreign agreements on environmental management and security should be complied with and strengthened
  • Promote the environment, enjoyment, quality of life, jobs and educational benefits (Sustainable Development Charter Group, 1998).

For eg, in the case of Wales, the Welsh Sustainable Development Unit was situated within the Climate Division of the Infrastructure, Planning and Environment Group. Its location, however, was seen as limiting sustainable development under the Environment Division only. It should be highlighted that sustainable development is a cross-sectional policy-goal that involves all sectors of democracy and the business sector (Bishop and Flynn, 1999). In the local level, Bishop and Flynn (1999) determined several loopholes including the increased workloads of civil servants and collaboration between agencies.

In the implementation of government policies on environment and sustainable development, various agencies are involved including the Royal Society for Bird Safety, UK Round Table on Sustainable Development, Department of Environment, and partnership with NGOs such as the Sustainable Buildings Task Group, Carbon Trust, WasteWatch, Sustrans, Global Action Plan UK, among others.

The UK Round Table on Sustainable Development and the Government Panel provided a Proposed National Partnership for Sustainable Development model (Appendix C) which was supposed to be independent from existing government bodies and conduct its own annual conference that will be answerable to the public. It is hoped to help shape the sustainable development programme with 10 individuals representing different perspectives that encompass: environment, education, economy, society, among others (Bishop and Flynn, 1999).

In addition, information campaign focused on the 15 Headline Indicators composed of economic output, investment, employment, poverty and social exclusion, education, health, housing, crime, climate change, air quality, road traffic, river water quality, wildlife, land use, and waste (Hobson, 2004).

Other governmental efforts also came from EU Directives, including the EU Working Hours Directive, the Work-Life Balance campaign of the Department of Industry, Working Parents laws, and the Energy White paper (Hobson, 2004). These are all seen to promote sustainable development.

Section 4: Lack of Prohibitions Set to The Private Sector

The Sustainable construction strategy has been mentioned as a joint effort between the Government and the Construction industry but without any binding effect (Devon Sustainable Building initiative, 2008). Ross (2010) further noted the need to address key issues in sustainable development that the UK government need to address: “improving understanding, providing a comprehensive framework to integrate potentially conflicting priorities and providing an operational toolkit,” (1101).

The consequences of the retarded actions of governments already resulted to alarming damages to the earth as it has already exceeded its ecological limits in the 1980s and regenerative capacity was exceeded at about 30% (WWF, 2008). Climate change, habitat destruction and inability to fulfil essential human requirements in certain places around the globe are the most visible implications (SCBD, 2006). The United Kingdom has adopted a strategic structure for sustainable growth and considered policies as “some of the best in the world” (Ross, 2010, 1102) but still, decision-making has not kept pace to make former chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission Jonathan Porritt to admit that, “the mainstreaming of sustainable development in the UK, from the margins of the centre of government, is indeed underway, but is still moving too slowly in most respects,” (6). In addition to this, many nations have yet to adopt appropriate legal foundation and legislation to drive sustainable development (Ross, 2010). While sustainable development has appeared regularly in the statutes, its role is limited to a legal objective, a procedural obligation or a legal framework rule in decision-making (8).

It is then necessary that the UK government produce a substantive or procedural obligation to secure the use of sustainable development and ensure legitimacy and legal recognition (Ross, 2010).

Legislation is important in making people realise what are at stake, obligate them to conform, and punish or provide consequence as necessary (Ross, 2010).

5: Modern Methods of Construction

Sustainable housing, like all other concerns of governance, emerged from environmental efforts as sustainable cities were also addressed (Camagni et al, 2001) and more recently, sustainable communities. It is in turn guided in principle by sustainable construction policy through the national policy of:

  • Zero Carbon New Homes, which the United Kingdom and Wales hope to achieve from 2016 onwards. The target annual net emissions of all energy consumption in the home must be zero. This will be done by amending the Building Regulations, which will require that the CO2 emissions from new homes be 25% lower than the 2006 Building Regulations, which began in 2010. Emissions will be 44 per cent lower by 2013. New Homes is expected to be highly energy efficient through the use of solar design and high levels of insulation and thermal mass. Electricity and heating are provided by means of renewable energy. These will be achieved through strong government leadership and active governance (Devon Sustainable Building initiative, 2008).
  • Zero Carbon New non-domestic buildings require all new schools to be zero carbon by 2016, all new commercial non-domestic buildings to be zero carbon by 2019 and new public sector buildings to be zero carbon by 2018 (Devon Sustainable Building initiative, 2008).
  • The Sustainable Homes Code replaced EcoHomes as “the single national standard for assessing the sustainability of new homes” ( (Devon Sustainable Building initiative, 2008, 1). The Code sets out six rating levels, with Level 6 being the highest and the best. It sets the mandatory minimum performance standards higher than those of the Building Regulations. The Code covers energy and CO2 emissions, waste and waste efficiency, materials, waste, pollution, health and well-being, management and ecology ( (Devon Sustainable Building initiative, 2008). It mandates that all new homes must be rated against the Code and reported in the Home Information Pack starting 2008. Code Level 3 is mandatory on housing that were built with funds from the English Partnership and Housing Corporation for the period 2008-2011. It will move to a notch higher on 2012 and Level 6 by 2015 (Devon Sustainable Building initiative, 2008).
  • Water Efficiency in New Buildings amended in 2009 requires a minimum water efficiency standard of 125 litres/person/day for new homes which is about 20% lower than the average rating in 2008. The policy also proposed to improve water efficiency of key fittings as well as establish a minimum water efficiency standard for non-residential buildings (Devon Sustainable Building initiative, 2008).
  • Planning Policy Statements or PPPS on Planning and Climate Change guarantees that new developments reduce CO2 emissions through various methods that encompass location, form, layout and use of renewable and low-carbon energy. The plans should be resilient to the impacts of future climate change including temperature fluctuation, reduced water availability, flooding risks (Devon Sustainable Building initiative, 2008).
  • Mandatory Site Waste Management Plans or SWMPs is required for all construction projects in the UK that costs over £300,000 starting in April 2008. Its goal is to improve resource efficiency through measured waste production on site as well as maximised reuse, recycling and disposal in order to minimise waste at source.

Other efforts of the UK government towards sustainable housing include survey of existing buildings to review and identify measures to improve sustainability specifically on energy and water efficiency. It encompasses both residential, and non-residential (Devon Sustainable Building initiative, 2008). Sustainable construction strategy is a joint effort between the Government and the Construction industry to “deliver a radical change in the sustainability of the construction industry” although the targets are non-binding that only guides the future of government policy ((Devon Sustainable Building initiative, 2008, 2). The UK’s green energy strategy intends to generate about 15% of its overall renewable energy by 2020 by the implementation of Feed in Tariff, which would regulate the price of electricity generated by renewable energy micro-generation technologies. This effort has allowed use of micro-generation devices without permission as long as these have minimal or no negative impact on neighbouring properties (Devon Sustainable Building Initiative, 2008).   

On the regional level, policy is focused on Regional Spatial Strategy for the South West or RSS which sets plan on each region as well as incorporate targets

On Sustainable Builds Vs Sustainable Builds

Sustainable housing is considered healthy and attractive that adds value and success of communities. However, sustainable building has been pointed out problematic due to lack of supply and its high cost or affordability. Sustainable communities are described with easily available housing, high quality, economic, ecological, aesthetically designed and comfortable (Maliene et al, 2008). In addition, it is a place where people want to live and work as their needs are met and those of future residents. They should be considerate to the environment, contribute to a good quality of life, safe, inclusive, well-planned, built, run and providing equal opportunities for all (Maliene et al, 2008). Various points of views are used to search for a sustainable housing – economic, social-psychological, and ecological. In addition, it should be integrated with the global experience in a creative manner to achieve higher standards of economic and social welfare (Maliene et al, 2008).

Ideally, everyone is proposed to have the chance to live in a decent home with affordable price, in a place they want which provides opportunity and a better quality of life with a secure and attractive environment (CLG, 2007).   It has been proposed that sustainable housing was considered less affordable and less accessible to the majority of UK residents (CLG, 2007).

Conventional housing, on the other hand, were built massively starting after World War II and onwards when the UK government and many of Europe were addressing decay of urban areas as a result of the 19th and 20th century industrial revolution, as well as the ravages of war . Many architects were influenced by the urban dwelling proposed by Le Corbusier of which units were stacked up in high rise buildings where it would soon provide tenants with unliveable dwellings as many of its basic features are not working. The 1980s had the government restructure housing through the Urban Development Corporations and Enterprise Zones together with other projects that address capability of tenants as well as previous problems of failed urban areas, poor quality of construction, insensitive housing management and lack of choice by tenants (Maliene et al, 2008). Housing cost where demand was high kept housing less affordable, caused homelessness, and other problems. On the other end, where housing has low demand, many are unoccupied due to un-affordable costs (Maliene et al, 2008)

Benefits and Disadvantages of Sustainable Builds

In consideration of the discussed need, sustainability led to commercialisation and industrialisation of all its aspects – renewable energy, waste disposal and management, faster and massive means of the natural cycle of consumption, and many others, worse of which has been the carbon trade-off where major polluters may buy permission from other polluters to produce more pollution. Whilst these initiatives were seen as solution of sustainability issues, it does not address the problems realistically. In the pursuit of renewable energy, massive production of solar panels for housing and industrial uses became the trend to lessen dependence on coals. This may be seen as beneficial and positive in the short term. Technological advances have allowed the integration of these solar panels that help produce electricity within the already existing homes without adoption of costly structural requirements (Reiche, 2009).

However, the raw materials used, production, transportation of these solar panels are of question whether sustainable means were followed. The same can be said of other proposed technologies that aim to divert carbon elsewhere and not release it on the atmosphere, as well as the carbon trade-off that has been adopted by developed countries with questionable sustainability and environment policies.

Another sustainable approach to building homes that has been adopted was the recycling of used materials to produce new ones. Recycled glasses as tiles, recycled woods pulped to produce new wooden boards and other costly production means that indeed “recycle” but using much or more energy than the recycled materials’ previous state.

Various methods are employed in order to achieve sustainable buildings for houses. Direct recycling of used materials was employed by some such as that of the Dalby Forest Visitor Centre in North Yorkshire. It used old tyres and inner tubes for roofing, use of microwind turbine and photovoltaic panels for electricity, and many recycled items for the building’s various features.The RSBP environment and education centre in Purfleet, Thames Gateway uses wind turbines, locally sourced raw materials such as sheep wool for insulation, translucent roof for day-lighting, amongst others. A home in Honingham, Norfolk has an earth-shetered social housing with majority of its side covered by earth and plants and built without conventional heating and cooling systems, maintained at only £3.80 per week (Miller, 2007).

One showcase residential building that is considered sustainable was located in Bow, east London with good insulation, 40% of electricity was supplied by photovoltaic panels, and 50% form microwind turbines. Its costs about 15% more than the regular property of the same size (Miller, 2007). In contrast to its long-term consumption, the cost provides a cheaper option for buyers.

Hobson (2004) further noted how the consumer is left on their own to decide what may be sustainable on their understanding, of which they are “ascribed with responsibility for creating sustainable consumption patterns,” (121) and that the UK  government is doing little to change the profligate resource consumption prevalent I the country, and elsewhere.

This echoed the Fabian Society’s observation that individuals have a lot of choices for consumption but they are given less participation on more important issues such as safety, environment, effective education, among others (Levett, 2003). It also meant higher gross domestic product and the parallel decline of well-being.

The means of sustainable development focuses once again on economic gains and less on quality of life as already highlighted in the United Nation’s Agenda 21 pointing out the inefficient overconsumption practices of the United States, many European Union countries, Japan, and Australia was the major cause of consumer boom in in 1990s and the crash that followed it. Agenda 21 was specific to point out that not only institutions but also individuals should be responsible in adopting sustainable consumption in order to break the ruinous produce-use-dispose cycle (Hobson, 2004). In analysing the current approach of sustainable consumption in the UK, Hobson (2004) noted the economy-first approach of which there is a maintenance of the current consumption level and practices to sustain economic growth but with consideration to resource efficiency of production methods and consumption practices. This meant that businesses adopt greening techniques in their operational and material processes, and individual consumers are encouraged to reuse, recycle and repair.  This method reduces the impact of urgency for adopting sustainable consumption in its most ideal level such as development of community cohesion in the process of creating community vegetable gardens, organic production and consumption, amongst others (Hobson, 2004). This is seen as a win-win approach, and “has gained the most political support in post-industrial nations such as the United Kingdom. Here, a market-orientated, “resource-efficiency-while-maximizing profits” paradigm has prevailed in government and business since the rise of environmental issues on the international political agenda,” (123). Policy is then geared towards labelling of products to inform consumers of the product’s environment impact, infrastructure initiatives such as the coding approach, and public campaigns.

Despite all efforts at sustainable development, the WasteWatch (2002) reported that about 25.1 million tons of waste came from households, placing waste generated per person at one ton per annum.  Of this, 85% of waste was sent to landfill sites indicating the conspicuous consumption as rising.


Sustainability it seemed remains as the only option for governments, businesses, and individuals to adopt in order to proceed properly with humanity and its civilisation. The individual participation to sustainability is mandatory. Therefore, even people’s homes should be sustainable in order to thread safely with nature and human existence.

Proper description and agreement to sustainability should be incorporated in global agreements or international bodies. It will guide governments and their policy-makers to adopt specific measures and legislations to forward the cause. Without the necessary legal framework for sustainability, however, all efforts will become nil. As already suggested, appropriate rewards and punishments should be incorporated in the legal actions about sustainability for it to become effective and seriously considered. Like any other law, violation should amount to consequential penalties.

In the legislation process, sustainable building for homes should also encompass sensibility on the natural environment, all factors about production and recycling, and the natural cycle of life that even mighty humans leave this earth should be considered. Ethos such as minimal destruction or negative impact and maximum ecological imprints should become a way of life for all. 


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A: Balanced Sustainability Model

Is Private Sector Creating Sustainable Housing Developments within the UK?

Source: Whitehead, 2011

B: Hierarchical Sustainability Model

Is Private Sector Creating Sustainable Housing Developments within the UK?

Source: Whitehead, 2011

C: Proposed National Partnership for Sustainable Development

Is Private Sector Creating Sustainable Housing Developments within the UK?

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