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News & Insight

Sustainable: A Wonderful, Well Worn Word!

21st September 2016
The shorter Oxford Dictionary says it is to “cause to continue in a certain state”. To some people it means conserving resources so future generations have choices.

The alternative definition (if you are a planning officer) is that sustainable means a bus stop and that if your remote barn or equestrian business or holiday cottage is located in the countryside with no public transport the development is unsustainable and it is a reason to refuse planning permission.

A more realistic way to look at sustainable development is to see it as three pillars of a stool, economic, social and environmental, all of which contribute to the fabric of society as a whole. If one leg of the stool becomes too dominant and the stool is not balanced, then it topples over. Recent legislation and policy has focused very much on environmental interests, but not enough attention is focused on the economic leg which generates the resources to enable other “nice but essential” things to happen.

There was a Eureka moment at a planning committee meeting where the applicant, a livestock farmer in the Green Belt, had been seeking planning permission for a stockman’s mobile home on and off for twenty-four years. A brave soul on the committee ventured the view that 93 per cent of the green belt was farmed, and that, as a livestock area, unless we provide support for stock farmers to use the land in a sustainable way to grow food, the landscape will change unacceptably. Other members saw the argument and voted against the recommendation to refuse. Hats off to that committee for having an enlightened and balanced view I say!

Sustainable construction has produced some interesting ideas. Programmes such as Grand Designs have made a lot of people think and with good reason. Historically materials tend to reflect the raw materials in an area, in the South East there is an abundance of clay and wood, hence houses constructed of timber frames with brick walls, weatherboard and tiled roofs. However, there are other things available to us such as wool and straw, hemp, sand and turf.

These materials can be used to build or insulate habitable buildings. The University of Bath has its pioneering “balehaus” which looks just like a normal house and yet is constructed from straw.

As well as thinking about different types of construction there are also well tried ways of doing things that are more carbon friendly, such as the use of lime mortar or render rather than the carbon hungry commonly used Portland cement.

Technology also brings benefits which together with simple ideas can help to conserve energy. The use of thicker insulation, walls that absorb heat behind glass (known as sunspaces) along with the more technical things including ground and air source heat pumps. It is possible to develop houses that require very little in the way of non-renewable energy in terms of heat or power.

The PassivHaus design was developed in the 1990s in Sweden and involves the use of mechanical ventilation and heat recovery systems for very low energy buildings. Except for very cold days the only heating required for PassivHaus buildings are from incidental gain from the occupants and pets.

The first houses built to PassivHaus standard were completed in 1991 so the technology is by no means new; since then over 10,000 houses have been built in different parts of the world. Indeed, Cirencester has recently become home to the first ever PassivHaus certified youth hostel within the UK as operated by New Brewery Arts, the site is also the largest Passivhaus certified building within the whole of Gloucestershire.

Sustainability is a collection of ideas all making a whole. It is essential we encourage our policy makers to adopt a balanced view and for recognition that rural areas may not be on a bus route but provide essential resources including food, raw materials and landscape for the greater good.

The Rural Planning Practice

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