Zero tolerance

It has private funding, an on-site power plant and even electric cars, but Bill Dunster's latest eco-friendly project has been resoundingly rejected by local residents. So is the target of high-density, low-energy housing attainable? Will Hurst reports
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The Independent Online

Bill Dunster is not a happy man. Just a few months ago, the pioneering architect was runner-up in the industry's highest award, the Stirling Prize, for his BedZED housing scheme in Beddington, south London. ZED stands for Zero (fossil) Energy Development and the colourful and funky BedZED model is widely seen as the future of UK living, thanks to a combination of cutting-edge, eco-friendly credentials and popularity among buyers. Today, though, Dunster sounds weary, almost bitter. His new baby, HarrowZED, an even more ambitious £25m wind- and solar-powered housing development planned in the north London borough is in jeopardy, with the original designs stalled thanks to a vigorous "not in my back yard" campaign. An intense man with an academic air, Dunster is on a mission to persuade us that we can choose environmentally sound lives simply because they are more desirable. In Harrow, however, he has found how easy it is for this to be blocked.

"We're feeling very battered," he says. "It looks like Harrow isn't going to get this, which is a real shame. We were very pleased because we have the first private-sector developer ever wanting to build this kind of development. But what we're going to get now is an industrial estate there. This is a case of local self-interest versus the city-wide perspective."

You might have thought permission for a scheme like HarrowZED would be easily won. Mayor Ken Livingstone's draft London plan requires every borough to have a zero-fossil energy development by 2010. In addition, Dunster's project, planned for derelict, brownfield land near South Harrow Tube station, promises a high proportion of affordable homes, in line with the Government's recent Barker report, which acknowledges Britain's desperate need for such housing. However, with an initial planning application rejected following a torrent of public criticism, and developer ZEDHomes threatening to pull the plug, HarrowZED exemplifies why the high-density and low-energy housing we truly need is exactly the housing we can't get.

Ironically, the project was launched in October through a costly exhibition intended to reassure the public. Comprising 216 homes within three blocks of six, 12 and 16 storeys, HarrowZED was intended to be two-thirds affordable housing. Aside from the wind turbines and solar panels, it aimed to implement more simple energy-saving technology such as south-facing windows, super insulation and an on-site waste burning power plant. With the local community in mind, ZEDHomes also promised a pool of electric cars for tenants, assistance to set up small businesses and a pledge to restore a nearby woodland.

You might have thought such a flagship development would be welcomed, but the reaction was swift and depressingly negative. Harrow Council received 179 letters of objection plus a petition, and the local newspaper printed scores of angry letters railing against the prospect of "tower blocks" and their associated problems.

One wrote: "Nowhere in Harrow have we had buildings of more than eight storeys, with the possible exception of those in commercial areas. The ZEDHomes plan is, in both size and density, out of keeping with the character of Harrow. It is a high-density 1960s-style development and we all know tower blocks like those failed."

Such entrenched attitudes meant few politicians dared do more than pay lip service to the scheme and local Liberal Democrats activists even distributed leaflets condemning the HarrowZED "tower blocks". The original plans were dealt a final blow by the Ministry of Defence. Consulted because of the proximity of airfield RAF Northolt, the MOD objected on the grounds that HarrowZED's estimated height would pose a risk to low-flying aircraft, baffling the developers, who knew there had been a far higher structure - a 240ft gasometer - on the same site.

The result of all this is a heavily compromised HarrowZED that may never be realised. It is also an example of national and global interests being quietly thwarted. The revised planning application, drawn up in discussion with council officers and submitted in mid-March, has reduced the proposed height to three blocks of eight storeys and the number of homes from 216 to 192. This may not seem a significant loss but ZEDHomes insist the spiralling costs of the project will mean a much-reduced provision of affordable homes. And the bruising example of the HarrowZED proposal will inevitably make other private investors wary of backing such forward-thinking schemes in the future.

Managing director of ZEDHomes, Michael Shwartz, admits he is close to the limits of commercial viability and may have to sell the land to a conventional developer. "I'm very frustrated," he says. "The weather is changing in front of us and you believe people and politicians want to help. Everybody is talking about not destroying the green belt and all the elements of a solution exist with this scheme, but are people brave enough to support us?"

And what does Dunster himself make of the situation, now that a revised HarrowZED has been put forward with at least some chance of success? "Elected local politicians will always favour the Nimbys," he says bluntly. "But I think we're at a unique point in the UK where you can see how these mundane, ordinary decisions start to affect the big things, the big issues.

"The scheme is still worthwhile but it's what I would call a classic British compromise and, with North Sea gas running out in five years' time and North Sea oil in 10, the classic British compromise just isn't going to work."