Fyson on... investigation that should bring home the consequencesof built environment staff shortfalls

Prime minister Gordon Brown, apparently acting on a gratifying enthusiasm for housing people in sustainable communities, recently doubled the number of eco-towns to be included in the first round of new town building.

However, although they might have approved in principle, many planning and construction professionals might be feeling renewed anxiety about where the skilled personnel to carry the programme forward are to be found.

Not that the eco-towns are by any means the only place-making project that is vulnerable - others include the continuing pressure for urban regeneration. So it was timely that the Academy for Sustainable Communities (ASC) published the results of its major investigation Mind the Skills Gap in September, just a week before Brown gave his Labour Party conference speech with its confident announcements about more house building.

The study was largely commissioned from Arup and launched by ASC chairman Peter Roberts with a prescient warning. He suggested that although there has been significant investment in tackling labour and skills shortages, "as ambitions grow and challenges emerge we need even more people with the right skills to deal with the complexities of delivering sustainable communities".

If these trends continue, the ASC warns that in only five years' time skills shortages will include 91 per cent too few architects and shortfalls in sustainability experts, regeneration professionals and planners of 74, 73 and 46 per cent respectively. No joy here for those who may think that this will result in an abundance of work for the well-qualified. In practice, it will lead to over-pressured working and staff constantly striving to meet a minimum level of acceptability rather than the excellence they know is needed. Confidence and enthusiasm will plummet in these circumstances. New skill sets, such as in carbon-efficient development, will remain mere aspirations.

The key question is whether the government will find resources to launch and maintain the training acceleration, job opportunities and multidisciplinary team formation that is required. In addition, the ASC studies generic skill shortages in each profession. For planners, a lack of financial management competence is highlighted.

Those who wish to see or influence the development of brownfield regeneration skills should respond to the ASC-English Partnerships consultation ending in three weeks. Meanwhile, the UK cannot let Brown take his eye off skills acquisition. It is fundamental to fulfilling the country's housing and environmental aspirations.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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