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Construction Management and Economics

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Sustainable development policy perceptions and practice in the UK social housing sector
Kate Carter & Chris Fortune
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School of the Built Environment, HeriotWatt University, Edwin Chadwick Building, Edinburgh EH14 4AS, UK Available online: 02 May 2007

To cite this article: Kate Carter & Chris Fortune (2007): Sustainable development policy perceptions and practice in the UK social housing sector, Construction Management and Economics, 25:4, 399-408 To link to this article:

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Construction Management and Economics (April 2007) 25, 399408

Sustainable development policy perceptions and practice in the UK social housing sector
School of the Built Environment, Heriot-Watt University, Edwin Chadwick Building, Edinburgh EH14 4AS, UK Received 1 June 2006; accepted 20 July 2006

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Massive investment has been allocated by the UK government to improve the quality of its programme of rented social housing over the next five years. Central to the achievement of this aim will be the incorporation of sustainability features within the building projects associated with this development programme. A sustainable development policy that addresses environment, economy and society in equal measure is a new funding requirement for social housing projects. There is a gap between policy and practice in two areas: (i) the possession or otherwise of a sustainable development (SD) policy; and (ii) the relative importance given to differing features of sustainability. The perceptions and practice of built environment professionals involved in the procurement of sustainable housing schemes has been gauged regarding SD policy. Quantitative data were collected from a randomized sample of 338 developing registered social landlords (RSLs). The results show that only a minority of respondent organizations have developed a sustainable development policy and that environmental, economical and societal aspects of sustainability are not given equal weighting. This does not reflect governmental policy and suggests that sustainability is not being fully addressed in the procurement of social housing projects. Further work is needed to evaluate the links between sustainability and procurement approaches, and to model the benefits of delivering sustainable housing projects for RSLs in the UK. Keywords: Sustainability, housing development, policy, housing associations

The UK government is committed to addressing the concept of sustainability in all publicly funded procurement and it is developing strategies and policies to shape action on sustainable development (SD). Owing to the deep connections between sustainability and housing (Ekins, 2000), the social housing sector has been central to the development of sustainable development policy. The range of principles, toolkits, definitions and agendas relating to sustainability is considerable. Most of them give equal weighting to economic, social and environmental aspects. However, many of the toolkits so far developed are either too broadaimed at policy level thinking; or overly complexdetailing vast lists of actions appropriate to improving sustainability. As a result there is a lack of a common structure or framework to assist project teams

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involved in the procurement of sustainable social housing projects. Massive investment has been allocated by the UK government to improve the quality of its rented social housing over the next five years. In England 38 billion is to be invested through the sustainable communities plan by 2010, which includes constructing 84,000 new homes by 2008 (Housing Corporation, 2006). In Scotland 1.2 billion is being invested to build 21,500 new and improved homes over the next two years (Communities Scotland, 2006). The funding is to be delivered through the governments housing agencies to the many registered social landlords (RSLs) involved in development projects. RSL organizations are involved in the commission, development, management and maintenance of socially owned rented properties in the UK. Government funding for such projects requires RSL organizations to ensure that sustainability issues are addressed through the development and implementation of organizational sustainable development (SD) policies.

Construction Management and Economics ISSN 0144-6193 print/ISSN 1466-433X online # 2007 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/01446190600922578

The requirement to deliver sustainable social housing building projects presents challenges to the built environment professionals involved. Translating policy into practice requires a common understanding of the individual features of SD policies and how these are addressed at the building project level. In addition there is a need to appraise which of the individual features of sustainability are likely to be more important to the client organizations involved. The resolution of such challenges will contribute to the pre-contract evaluation of sustainable projects and facilitate its subsequent incorporation into the procurement processes devised to deliver sustainability. The existence and characteristics of SD policies held by RSLs establishes the framework that these organizations apply to the delivery of sustainability in social housing projects. Quantitative data from a large representative sample of developing RSLs were collected to analyse the balance of SD policies with respect to economic, social and environmental factors and to further explore the specific issues that are considered most important to the delivery of sustainability. This platform of current perceptions and practice in the UK social housing sector facilitates further research related to issues such as sustainable project procurement and pre-contract benefit evaluation.

Carter and Fortune

has implications beyond housing, affecting transport, health, employment and community (Stevenson and Williams, 2000). Social housing construction represents a relatively large proportion of public procurement and has been recognized for its ability to address innovation (Goodchild and Chamberlain, 1999). Increased public funding into the UK social housing sector coincided with a high profile campaign to improve the sustainability of housing. The requirement to deliver sustainable development presents a challenge to those involved in the procurement of social housing. World summits through the 1990s brought the issue of sustainability into mainstream consideration and there has been much research undertaken to align construction industry practice with general concern for the environment and societys responsibility towards future generations well-being and health. The Brundtland report (1987), and the subsequent United Nations, Agenda 21 initiative (WCED, 1993) each indicate that sustainability needs to consider environmental, economical and societal well-being with equal weighting. Hill and Bowens (1997) seminal work proposed a four pillar approach which divided environmental sustainability into (i) technical, and (ii) biophysical sustainability, as well as the softer (iii) economic, and (iv) societal aspects. The approach suggested was supported by a lengthy and detailed framework for attaining sustainability at construction project level. Bourdeau (1999) acknowledged that the shortcomings of existing knowledge relating to the softer issues of sustainability precluded their full consideration when seeking to make informed decisions. Sjostrom and Bakens (1999) also called for non-technical or soft issues relating to economic and societal impact to be recognized at project level as they asserted that such issues were at least as crucial for a sustainable development in construction [as technical issues]. Du Plessis was also deeply critical of the way in which sustainability, at project level, was being developed without due regard to the social impact it had. She argued that sustainable development was in danger of becoming just more politically correct jargon (1999, p. 388). Venables et al. (2000) and Addis and Talbot (2001) both maintain that a bias towards environmental concerns still dominates even though policies advocate a balanced approach to environment, economy and society. Evidence for this view was found in Howards (2000) empirical study on the construction industrys perspective on sustainability. Environmental factors were found to constitute five areas of concern, while economic and social factors accounted for one area each. Since 1998 the social housing sector has been inundated with advice and guidance on how to deliver sustainability. The Housing Corporation has supported

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Literature review
The 1998 CIB World Building Congress focused on the issue of procurement and the role it plays in the delivery of sustainability. Pollington (1999) called for environmental standards and ethical issues to be fully integrated into the procurement system. Later work by Sterner (2002) showed that as yet only 21% of clients stipulated environmental requirements within their procurement strategies. However, in the UK it is the government and its funding agencies that are championing change by adopting sustainable development (SD) policies themselves and looking to their project supply chain organizations to adopt more sustainable construction practices and processes in the delivery of their projects. This issue was addressed by the UK government in Building a Better Quality of Life (DETR, 2000). This report was a milestone in the development of a more socially and environmentally responsible, better-regarded construction industry. This publication encouraged organizations to introduce their own SD policies. RSLs who receive funding for social housing developments through the governments funding agencies were at the forefront of this change. Housing is considered to be central to the successful delivery of sustainability. It affects quality of life and

Sustainability in the UK social housing sector

26 Innovation and Good Practice (IGP) projects focused on sustainable development over the past year (Housing Corporation, 2004). The Housing Forum has 49 demonstration projects relating to sustainability, the majority of which are social housing projects. There is political and policy support for the goal of sustainable development yet there is evidence that in general practice it is a concept that is still misunderstood and unsupported by many stakeholders in the procurement system (Sustainable Homes, 2004, p. 2; Harris and Holt, 1999, p. 207). The Sustainable Housing Design Guide for Scotland (Stevenson and Williams, 2000), the Sustainability Policy Wizard (Talbot, 2002) and Six Steps to Sustainable Development for Housing Associations (Beyond Green, 2004) provide the social housing sector a wealth of information and approaches to addressing sustainability. The disadvantage to these resources is that they present every possible opportunity to deliver a more sustainable housing project. It is an impossible task to incorporate all good practice into a single project and the housing associations are left with the difficult decision of adopting some measures and rejecting others. In addition there are commercially available toolkits such as BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) developed by BRE. EcoHomes is a version of BREEAM, specifically designed for housing evaluation (Rao et al., 2000). This assessment tool aims to balance environmental performance with quality of life indicators. The issues assessed are grouped into seven categories: energy; water; pollution; materials; transport; ecology and land use; health and well-being. The EcoHomes tool has been well received as it provides a grading system for potential schemes to be compared, but it focuses heavily on environmental issues and its output, in the form of a total score, is capable of masking parts of the development that are not sustainable. A further toolkit developed by Long (2001) specifically for RSLs, consists of nine factors aimed at the wider context of community. Core factors: demand; reputation; and crime, reflect its broader application and usefulness for high level strategic decision making. The common failing of all the toolkits considered is their focus on either broad strategic issues or in-depth complexities. The result is a lack of a structured framework to assist project teams involved in the procurement of a sustainable building project. Kibert et al. (2000) confirm that there is much to be done to deliver sustainable construction practice at project level as in a review of action on sustainability, it was concluded that despite all the initiatives and toolkits that have been developed the sustainable construction movement has barely scratched the surface of creating buildings that can be remotely called

sustainable. Lombardi and Brandon (2002) asserted that the available toolkits do not address the specific needs of an individual project. They maintained that a suitable framework which enabled decision makers to understand the implications of sustainability was still needed. The gap between the UK government policies, strategies, initiatives, toolkits, frameworks and the approach adopted by the social housing sector was explored by Carter and Fortune (2006). Qualitative data were gathered from a small number (eight) of built environment professionals involved in the development of sustainable housing projects for RSLs. A grounded theory approach was taken to the identification of real issues that project stakeholders considered in the development of sustainable housing projects. Fourteen features of sustainability emerged: energy efficiency; building standards; quality of specification; maintenance; insulation; funding; feedback; involvement of tenants; fuel poverty; rent levels; mixed tenure; mixed development; community facilities; and recycling. To establish their applicability to the UK social housing sector further empirical work was undertaken. Empirical research involves the observation of real world experiences, evidence and information (Punch, 1998). A survey questionnaire was used to examine the emphasis these features of sustainability are given in SD policy. Analysis provided perception of how SD policy reflects the triple bottom line. This gave a valuable insight into the profile of SD policy in the social housing sector.

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Survey design
Oppenheim (1992) sets out best practice in the design of surveys in the following terms: establishing the aim of the survey; designing and piloting the measuring instrument; administering the survey; analysing and disseminating the results. The aims of the survey were established as (i) to collect data from the real world that could be used to assess the significance of individual features of sustainability; and (ii) to ascertain the emphasis, in terms of environmental, social and economic aspects of SD policies developed and used by RSL organizations involved in developing sustainable rented housing projects in the UK. The design of the questionnaire allowed data to be collected around these key themes. The questionnaire was concerned with the collection of perception and meaning in the subjective area of sustainability and its understanding and application. The scale of the survey and the underlying aim of ranking sustainability features called for the use of

attitudinal measuring Likert scales. Such scales provide a number of options for the respondent to select. The main variable in the survey was identified as being the respondents size of organization. The survey was piloted among a group of 15 RSLs. The respondents were asked to complete the questionnaire and make comments on the content, layout and rationale of the questions. Each respondent completed a feedback sheet and the responses and comments were used to develop the final questionnaire. The finalized questionnaire was dispatched with a covering letter that was addressed to the development manager of each organization included in the sample frame that explained the purpose of the research. The UK social housing sector consists of over 1,800 RSLs. The number of developing organizations amounts to more than half of this total. Therefore a database of the 998 developing RSLs in the UK was established from published sources and it was used to select a randomized sample of 332 developing RSLs each with a stock of more than 20 dwellings for the survey. The first administration of the survey generated a 25% response rate to the survey which was considered to be inadequate. A second administration was undertaken and this increased the final response rate to 36%. This level of response, although not high, is typical of survey response rates reported for similar construction management research. As a result it was deemed acceptable in terms of providing a reasonable representation of the survey population.

Carter and Fortune

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Figure 1 Number of units owned by the RSL

Respondent characteristics
The number of properties owned by each respondents organization ranged between 26 and over 10,000 units (Figure 1). The majority of respondents owned between 2,500 and 10,000 units. The other respondent groups were generally almost equal in size (between 12.5% and 15%). A comparison of the survey results with the profile of developing RSLs held on the national database confirmed that the sample of respondents was representative of that population. Of this sample 92% confirmed that they were intending to develop new housing projects and this confirmed the validity of the sample.

criteria from the housing agencies. This result might reflect the need for regulatory input in order to effect change or it may indicate that RSLs without a SD policy were not intending to remain a developing RSL into the future. The extent to which SD policies reflect environmental, economical and societal aspects of sustainable development is a measure of how these factors are prioritized for typical new housing schemes. Respondents were asked to indicate the balance of their policy by marking the proportion of segments on the questionnaire form that was relevant to each aspect of sustainability within their policy documents (Figure 2). This was designed to evaluate the emphasis that their organization put on each of the triple bottom line aspects of sustainability. The results indicate that there was a predominance of SD policies with significance being given to one or more of the economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainability. Only 37% of respondents allocated three segments to each category giving equal emphasis for their sustainable development policy. The histogram for environment is skewed to the right and represents a tendency for respondents to score environment more highly in their SD policies. The

Characteristics of sustainable development policies

Fewer than half of the respondents (48%) had a SD policy. Although it was not the case at the time of the survey, a SD policy is now one of the key funding

Figure 2 Balance of sustainable development policy diagram (from questionnaire)

Sustainability in the UK social housing sector

histograms for social and economic are skewed to the left. This reflects a tendency to score them less prominently in the respondent organizations SD policies. Figure 3 shows the mean score for environment was found to be higher than the scores for social or economic. This indicates a greater number of respondents placing a greater emphasis on environment. However, the standard deviation of 1.1453 indicates the widest spread of responses. Figure 4 shows that the mean score for social was the closest in value to a score of 3 (2.895). This indicates the largest percentage of respondents scoring 3 for this aspect. The standard deviation was the lowest of the three aspects indicating the narrowest range of responses. Figure 5 shows that the mean score for economic aspects of 2.579 was the lowest of the three. There was a higher number of responses lower than 3. The standard deviation of 0.9518 indicates a spread of responses greater than environment but less than social.


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Figure 4

SD balance: social

Sustainable development features and their importance ranking

The earlier grounded theory study identified 14 features of sustainability that were considered important to the procurement of social housing and the delivery of sustainability. By assessing each feature of sustainability and its importance to the sustainable development policy of their organization, the respondents enabled a more detailed understanding of the SD policies to emerge. A five-point Likert scale was adopted for the responses which ranged from essential

(5) to unimportant (1). The neutral category (3) was important. The majority of respondents considered all of the features to be important, very important or essential. Ten of the 14 features had at least 91% of respondents in agreement on their importance. This result confirmed the importance of the features of sustainability to the social housing sector. A very small percentage of respondents believed some of the features to be either secondary or unimportant. These features were (i) building standards (2%); (ii) funding (9%); (iii) feedback (1%); and (iv) involvement of tenants (4%). This

Figure 3 SD balance: environment

Figure 5

SD balance: economic

further validates the relevance of the features and confirms their overall importance to sustainability in the procurement process. To determine the relative importance of each of the features a simple weighting was attached to each category in the Likert scale that allocated a score from one to five. A cumulative score for each feature was calculated to derive a score to prioritize the features. Each response rate was multiplied by the weighting score to establish a score for each category (Table 1). All the category scores were added together to provide a total score for each feature. The three most important features of sustainability emerged as energy efficiency; building standards; and quality of specification. The lowest scoring feature was recycling. The respondents were offered the opportunity to add any features of sustainability to the list provided in the questionnaire. Only six respondents provided additional features and they included issues such as transport, water efficiency, energy efficiency, community centre/facilities, social activities and awareness raising. The only new feature that emerged was transport, which was considered very important by only one respondent. The remaining features that emerged from the questionnaire could be integrated within the already identified features. This gives more weight to the set of features established from the grounded theory work. Primary hypotheses

Carter and Fortune

The basic hypotheses of the survey were as follows: (1) SD policies were more likely to be found in large RSL organizations. (2) SD policies were based on the triple bottom lineproviding SD policies with equal emphasis on environmental, economic and social aspects. Null hypotheses were established for each of the hypotheses indicated above. Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) was used to determine whether the probabilities of the results (P-value of 0.05 or less) could be considered significant. The data collected were ordinal in nature. A KolmogorovSmirnov test revealed that the survey data were non-normal in their distribution. As a result it was decided to apply nonparametric tests. Chi-square, Cramers V and Kendalls tau tests were used on the data. The chi-square test measured if there was a significant association between two variables but not the strength of any association. The strength of association between two variables was tested with the Cramers V test. The third statistical test used on the data was the Kendalls tau test to determine the strength and direction of any covariance.

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Respondent organizational characteristics The responses to the survey presented data on the size of the RSL organization. It was decided to group the categories used in the original data collection into three organizational size bandssmall (23 respondents), medium (36 respondents) and large (55 respondents). This recoding was used as a major variable in the subsequent analysis and it allowed relationships to be

Data analysis and discussion

Field (2000) indicates that the results of a data collection exercise need to be explored to reveal whether suggested trends in the data indicate significant relationships between variables.
Table 1

Responses and weighted scoring on importance of the features of SD policy Unimportant (1) Secondary (2) 1 Important (3) 10 13 15 22 23 22 24 27 31 35 24 31 39 51 3 V. Important (4) 43 40 43 47 47 35 41 32 46 36 34 33 29 24 1 Essential (5) 45 44 41 30 29 32 30 36 20 24 16 13 13 9 2 Total score 397 383 377 338 333 317 316 316 286 271 255 231 211 167

Energy efficiency Building standards Quality of specification Maintenance Insulation Funding Feedback Involving tenants Fuel poverty Rent levels Mixed tenure Mixed development Community facilities Recycling Other

1 7 6 2

8 1 4 1 3 16 14 14 13

Sustainability in the UK social housing sector

examined between the differing sizes of organization commonly involved in the delivery of social housing projects. SD policies and organizational size The data results revealed a high percentage of RSLs without a SD policy. Analysis was conducted to establish if there was any relationship between the size of organization and the existence of a SD policy. Table 2 illustrates a cross tabulation of the two variables, size of RSL and sustainable development policy. The percentages indicate that as the size of organization increases a higher percentage have a SD policy. Only 26% of small RSLs have a SD policy, whereas 55% of large RSLs and 42% of medium RSLs already have a policy. A Cramers V test was conducted to establish if a significant relationship existed between the size of organization and the existence of a policy. The value of the coefficient is low (closer to 0 than 1) and the significance is more than 0.05. So, although the figures suggest a correlation, a significant relationship did not exist between the size of organization and the existence of a sustainable development policy. This result may well reflect the funding situation at the time of the questionnaires administration and as such the result may well alter if the questionnaire were to be repeated in the current funding climate. The UK government funding agencies now allocate funds conditional on the existence of such organizational SD policies.

SD policies are based on the triple bottom lineproviding equal emphasis on environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainability The balance of SD policy was of interest because the literature reviewed revealed that government housing agency policies were strongly in support of equal merit being given to social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainability. The analysis of the data was carried out to establish if there was a correlation between the size of organization and the balance of the policy. Owing to the large number of permutations, it was decided to reorganize the data to define the policy balance in one of three categoriesbalanced, small emphasis and strong emphasis (Figure 6). Balanced indicated a policy with equal scoring for each aspect of sustainability, i.e. a 333 segment return (Figure 2). Small emphasis represented a policy that scored either plus one or minus one in any aspect away from a balanced policy position, i.e. 432 or 324. Strong emphasis represents a policy that scored two or more in either direction away from a balanced policy position, i.e. 531 or 711. The total score always added to nine. Although balanced policies made up over a third of all responses (35%), a large proportion of policies had either a small (31%) or strong emphasis (27%) on one or more of the aspects of sustainability. Table 3 shows that the null hypothesis stated that the RSLs would have policies that were not equally balanced. This null hypothesis could not be rejected and it is clear that the

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Table 2

Size of RSL sustainable development policy: cross-tabulation Sust. development policy Yes No 16 12.5 69.6% 21 19.6 58.3% 25 29.9 45.5% 62 62.0 54.4% 54.4% Approx. sig. 0.064 0.064 0.064 No response 1 0.2 4.3% 0 0.3 0.0% 0 0.5 0.0% 1 1.0 0.9% 0.9% 23 23.0 100.0% 36 36.0 100.0% 55 55.0 100.0% 114 114.0 100.0% 100.0% Total

Small RSLs

Medium RSLs

Large RSLs


Count Expected count % within recode Count Expected count % within recode Count Expected count % within recode Count Expected count % within recode % of total

to SML

to SML

to SML

to SML

Statistics Nominal by nominal

N of valid cases

Phi Cramers V Contingency Coefficient 114

6 10.3 26.1% 15 16.1 41.7% 30 24.6 54.5% 51 51.0 44.7% 44.7% Value 0.279 0.197 .269


Carter and Fortune

if the policies that had strong emphasis in any particular aspect were linked to the age of a policy, but there was no significant relationship. The Kendalls tau-b test resulted in a very small positive correlation of 0.019 with a P of 0.832. The three main aspects of sustainability were in effect in competition with one another within SD policies. A high incidence of policies had emphasis on one of the main aspects of sustainability. Investigation into the way in which respondents sacrificed one aspect in favour of another allows us to understand the strength of relationships between aspects of sustainability. Table 4 shows the results of a Kendalls tau-b test and demonstrates that the relationship between environment and the other two aspects of sustainability were the strongest and were statistically significant. Both correlations were negative, as would be suspected, and economic had the highest likelihood of being sacrificed in favour of the environment. The relationship between social and economic aspects within SD policy balance was found to be not significant.

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Figure 6 Balance of SD policy by size of RSL

balanced approach promoted by the housing agencies was not being implemented as standard by the surveys respondents. A correlation was conducted to determine
Table 3 Correlation of policy emphasis and size of RSL

The RSL sector has a well-developed SD policy framework supported by a broad range of guidance. Despite this there is still a gap between policy and practice. The SD policies emerging from individual RSLs are emphasizing environmental aspects of

Policy emphasis Strong emphasis Recode to SML Small RSLs Medium RSLs Large RSLs 2 10 15 27 Value 0.019 Small emphasis 7 11 13 31 Approx. T(b) 0.212 Balance 5 9 21 35 Approx. sig. 0.832


Total Ordinal by ordinal Kendalls tau-b

14 30 49 93

Table 4

Correlation of social, economic and environmental aspects of SD policies Social Correlation coefficient Sig. (2-tailed) N Correlation coefficient Sig. (2-tailed) N Correlation coefficient Sig. (2-tailed) N 1.000 95 20.167 0.062 95 20.407(**) 0.000 95 Economic 20.167 0.062 95 1.000 95 20.547(**) 0.000 95 Environment 20.407(**) 0.000 95 20.547(**) 0.000 95 1.000 95

Kendalls tau-b Social



Sustainability in the UK social housing sector

sustainability while social and economic aspects were sacrificed. Balanced policies were found in only a third of all cases. Practitioners prioritizing individual features of sustainability consistently ranked environmental features more highly than a range of social and economic features. This imbalance is found repeatedly in the literature on sustainability. However, in the context of social housing it is surprizing that social factors are not ranked more highly. This may be explained by the intrinsic social nature of the housing projects and that it is not perceived necessary to prioritize this through a separate sustainable development policy. Economic factors were generally ranked in the middle. Many of the highly ranked environmental features had a strong technical bias which reflects the fourth pillar advocated by Hill and Bowen (1997). This suggests that the triple bottom line needs to be expanded to include the technical bias of construction procurement delivery. In order to address the gap that exists between established policy and practice, there must be cognisance of the fact that not all features of sustainability considered important can be prioritized. Individual projects will have specific issues that are of particular importance. A framework is required to map projectspecific issues against policy issues. This will enable an assessment of progress in each individual project towards overarching policy objectives. Large RSLs were more likely to have a SD policy. They are better equipped to respond to policy development and are increasing their share of the overall social housing development programme. Funding regimes appear to be increasingly aligned to assetbased strength which will continue this trend. In the future this will impact on the way in which sustainability is addressed in social housing. Small scale projects which have traditionally encouraged innovation will become less evident. A similar study to establish and evaluate the links between sustainability and certain procurement approaches, such as partnering, could provide a useful insight into the perceptions of where sustainability can be best delivered in socially owned housing projects. The establishment of the most important features of sustainability and their relative significance in the SD policies of housing project client organizations provides a platform for further research into modelling the benefits of delivering sustainable housing projects for RSLs in the UK.

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