The huge regeneration of Birmingham's Eastside was hailed as a potential shining beacon of sustainability. Now critics say the opportunity has been lost. Here Joanna Geary investigates - and puts the spotlight on the cost of sustainable office developments.
Birmingham’s Eastside development has failed in its aim to become a sustainable showcase, despite being warned more than three years ago that it was off track, it has been claimed.
The regeneration zone was earmarked to become an exemplar of sustainability by Birmingham City Council's former Labour leadership in 2000. But according to both environmental and design experts, there has been little evidence to suggest this has been realised.
Karen Leach, chair of the Eastside Sustainability Advisory Group, said that by failing to enact stiff planning regulations city council had missed the opportunity to turn the area into a beacon of sustainable living.
She said: "When it was decided to promote the idea of a sustainable Eastside, the council chose instead to employ advisors rather than creating supplementary planning guidance.
"But what developer is going to listen to advice if it is going to cost them more?
"If you follow a market lead approach, rather than use strong legislation, people will drop sustainable measures in order to make more money."
The council’s Eastside team, responsible for overseeing the area’s redevelopment, had been warned in 2003 that the sustainable Eastside project was likely to fail unless urgent action was taken.
A European city peer review - which studied the performances of a range of cities in the UK and on the continent - produced a damning report on Birmingham.
It concluded that "sustainability principles in the Eastside project hang in the balance".
The report also criticised the city for not making sustainable features a condition of the development contract.
It added that although Eastside was Birmingham’s best opportunity to create a sustainable showcase, there was little evidence of any political support from the then Labour administration to make it happen.
Ms Leach said: "It is a missed opportunity. It is political cowardice that the politicians in the city are guilty of. I would not blame the Eastside team.
"They have been quite prepared to pester developers but have no say on legislation. The fault lies with the politicians.
"You need to put legislation in place to make these things happen."
Ms Leach’s comments were echoed by Barry Redman, head of the energy and sustainable design group at Silcock Dawson - a nationwide firm of building service engineers.
Mr Redman said Birmingham was already being outpaced on sustainability by authorities such as Oxford, London and Woking, who had imposed strict conditions on developers.
He said: "The problem is that most environmental technologies take a fairly long time to pay back.
"If an authority wants to have an area that is an exemplar of sustainability, then it has to be enshrined in supplementary planning guidance.
"The construction industry won't volunteer to spend money on something with a 20-year payback."
"If it’s in planning guidance then the only reason a developer could have for not including a sustainable measure is if it’s not technically possible – they can’t drop it because of its cost."
Mr Redman said that some of the blame must lay at the feet of Birmingham City Council planning department, which would have been responsible for deciding what buildings would be allowed to be built in the area.
He said: "Planners are virtually a law unto themselves and there is nothing stopping them reviewing applications on the back of a sustainability agenda.
"They can enforce the requirement that developers need to score so many points in sustainability before getting planning permission."
Mr Redman said that if Birmingham City Council was serious about turning Eastside into an area of sustainability it needed to act quickly and follow London’s lead.
He said: "Our experience of other authorities is they take the power in order to succeed. Cambridge has created an interim planning guide for its city which simply refers developers to the conditions laid out in London's sustainability guide.
"It made it quick to pass and, if it wanted to, there is no reason why Birmingham can't do the same within a month."
But Councillor Ken Hardeman, cabinet member for regeneration at Birmingham City Council, defended the Eastside scheme and said the council was restricted on what it could demand from developers.
He said: "If you can find us specific examples where sustainable practices have been dropped in the development process, or evidence that we have not enforced sustainability in Eastside where we could have, then I will certainly ask questions.
"But generally I am relaxed about what we are doing in Eastside. I believe it can become an exemplar of sustainability.
"Birmingham does not look for developers that just develop, we want them to have quality submissions and be willing to address sustainability.
"We encourage people to adopt sustainable practices, but if planning law does not make it necessary for them to be put in place, we can't turn an application down.
"It is really a failure of central government not to include more sustainability in planning law."
Rosemary Coyne, sustainability advisor on the council’s Eastside team said that the commitment to sustainable development in Eastside had existed since 2002, which was too late to influence buildings such as Millennium Point and Masshouse, but future buildings would be of much better quality. She said: "I truly believe that we will see a rise in the sustainable aspects in Eastside buildings.
"The quality of the Martineau Galleries project, for example, is far higher in sustainable terms compared to those building in development in 2000.
"The council's commitment to the combined heat and power scheme has also been a real benefit and given the opportunity for people to think in a different way about energy. We have also announced the start of the Green Roof Demonstration Programme it is an interesting technology which can have a variety of uses.
"I think the aspiration is there to make Eastside a sustainable exemplar and people are working very hard to translate it into targets."