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Who killed the eco-town?

How Gordon Brown’s vision for 10 carbon-neutral towns met its demise. Damian Arnold investigates

Eco-towns are dead. Architects, planners and developers alike are asking: who killed them?

Gordon Brown wanted to unveil plans for 10 carbon-neutral communities that would deliver up to 200,000 new homes on cheap government-owned land in the greenbelt by 2020.  The idea was that the eco-towns would be so enthusiastically received that they could simply be parachuted into existing local authority development plans and fast-tracked through the system so that building could get started as quickly as possible. Developers flocked to get involved in what they saw as a great commercial opportunity – all in the name of being green.

For better or for worse, this grand plan is not going to happen. What is going to happen is that, early next month, the government will announce, with great fanfare, the location of Britain’s first ‘eco-towns’. One that will definitely make the cut is Rackheath, a 3,500-home scheme on a former Ministry of Defence site in Norfolk. Another that is strongly tipped to come on stream is St Austell, a 5,000-home scheme on the site of a former china clay pit in Cornwall. Both proposals are local authority-led and are in existing development plans.

But these are not the brave new ‘Brown’s towns’ that were envisaged. ‘Rackheath and St Austell have some possibility of being built,’ said a source close to the eco-towns initiative. ‘Most of the others are absolutely dead in the water. You will never get a development of 10,000-plus homes anywhere in England and drop it out of the sky without a consultation process.’

So what went wrong? One person close to the scheme, who does not wish to be named, says: ‘It goes something like this. Someone told the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG): “Why don’t you propose greenfield sites in the middle of nowhere and call them eco-towns. It will be a great way of beating the system and getting over regional planning guidance”.’

The streamlined government approval was to have been the incentive for developers to invest in the considerable resources, such as transport links and renewable energy sources, needed to create a sustainable community. The reality has been very different. The past year has seen a wave of nimbyism break out from furious people living near to the 15-strong shortlist (which has since been cut to 11, see opposite) of proposed eco-towns. Most do not want new developments near them, however green they are. The number of e-petitions protesting against them on the Downing Street website has swollen from six to nine in recent weeks, with more than 7,200 people registering objections.

In Pennbury, Leicestershire, 11,000 signatures have been collected against the 15,000 homes proposed for nearby Oadby. Actress Judi Dench and Formula One driver Johnny Herbert are among the 6,500 people objecting to plans for 6,000 eco-homes in Middle Quinton. Tennis star Tim Henman’s father, Anthony, is leading the charge in Oxfordshire against the 15,000 new homes planned for Weston Otmoor.
‘We expect between 10,000 and 15,000 signatures… and we have not had a single negative comment against what we are trying to do,’ Henman said.

You can add to this some damning reports, such as the financial viability report carried out by the DCLG, published in March, and reports by the 12-strong Eco-Towns Challenge Panel, appointed by the same government department, which pointed to the risibility of calling developments ‘eco-towns’, when they would effectively be car-dependent communities in the middle of the countryside, with little chance of attracting the massively expensive public transport infrastructure required.

HTA Architects director Ben Derbyshire agrees: ‘DCLG made it clear at the beginning that eco-towns would not go through normal planning procedures, but the goal posts have changed. The government is not offering any planning incentives at all.’

Red or Dead fashion label founder and successful housing developer, Wayne Hemingway, who sat on the government’s Eco-towns Challenge panel, adds that eco-towns will now have to be delivered as part of the local planning process.

He says: ‘After the bankers did their worst on the economy without any regulation, any idea of short-cutting the process has gone. It would provoke an outcry. People are now questioning everything.’

As a result, the eco-towns initiative is dead – it no longer stacks up financially and developers are pulling out. Shadow housing minister Grant Schapps says: ‘The government’s own assessments admitted that only three of the proposals will be viable without public subsidy, thus requiring the taxpayer to bail out private developers.’

Brian Waters, director of planning at HTA, who led a group of architects, developers, engineers and bankers in a ‘delivery consortium’ to look at eco-towns with a view to forming partnerships to build them, confirms that his group has lost interest.

He says: ‘We have given up on the government’s failed eco-towns exercise, because the original prospectus has changed. We were given to understand that the planning process would be different, but that will not be the case. We are now looking at the international market place, such as settlements in Libya.’

The eco-towns’ delivery consortium, which includes practices such as Conran Architects and HTA, property agent Savills and developers Argent and Grosvenor, will not be getting involved commercially in any projects that come forward, he says. Which begs the question: how did the idea of fast-tracking these greenfield developments ever gain credence in the first place?

The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) has come under scrutiny. It lobbied strongly for the eco-towns and also happens to include in its subscribed membership many of the developers who went on to bid for them. The TCPA was put in charge of setting the sustainability standards for eco-towns, for which it has received a considerable amount of money from the government – although the charity maintains it has had no involvement in the ‘choice of processes nor potential locations’.

The TCPA has also been accused of an alleged conflict of interest, since some of its leaders acted as consultants to eco-town bidders. Their involvement is unusual as an organisation that has always prided itself on the importance of local consultation. The distinguished planner and TCPA member, Peter Hall, is known to be very uncomfortable that eco-towns could be fast- tracked through the planning system.

In response to the allegations, he TCPA said it had ‘called for a full, public, local inquiry to be held into any eco-town proposal not already allocated in a develop­ment plan’, and that ‘due process [was] vital to the programme’.

With the eco-towns policy in tatters, the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) is now expected to take over the eco-towns program at some point in the next six months. Senior figures at the HCA are reported to have been very unhappy with the agency’s lack of involvement in the process thus far.

Should it assume control of the initiative, it is expected to bring in new sites, some of them in urban areas, such as Barking Riverside, that are already in local plans.

TCPA chief executive Gideon Amos shrugs criticism of eco-towns aside and hails the initiative as a ‘marvellous opportunity’ to deliver a new paradigm for housing design.

He says: ‘One of the advantages of building these new settlements is that there is more space available. It should be possible to make much more imaginative use of green space and to build really high-quality houses and gardens that are really attractive to families.

‘Clearly there has been a lot of opposition, but those who are in favour of eco-town initiatives are not always the ones who shout the loudest. We have formed a group, including Help the Aged, Shelter and the TUC, representing 14 million people, which supports the eco-towns programme. We are still very hopeful that the policy will deliver and that up to five will be announced next month.’

Meanwhile, Hemingway reckons that, even if it was only Rackheath that came forward as an eco-town exemplar, the exercise would still have been a worthwhile one. He says: ‘Just one eco-town would be great.
If you want to change something for the better, you need one great exemplar that is deliverable in order to change people’s hearts and minds.’

RIBA president Sunand Prasad agrees. He says: ‘Although it has taken longer and although, understandably, there are fewer of them that are going to happen now because of the credit crunch, fundamentally the principle of eco-towns can be effective.’

Ironically, however, it is the flawed ‘principle’ of the eco-town that has led to its demise or damnation. According to the tenets of sustainability, eco-towns never really existed as a viable or truly green proposition in the first place. As Design for Homes director David Birkbeck says: ‘There is no such thing as an eco-town in a field in the middle of rural England.’

 

How they fare:

1 Rackheath, Norfolk

The community of 3,400 homes – the smallest proposal – is a partnership between Barratt Strategic and local authorities in Norfolk. The scheme, on a disused airfield next to an existing village of 1,400 people, is the only one with a Grade A rating for sustainability.
Status: Safe bet

2 St Austell, Cornwall

This scheme of 5,000 homes by
St Modwen Homes and the Bird Group has a good chance of getting the go-ahead, despite the fact that it would have a development deficit of £60 million to £190 million and would need heavy public subsidy to succeed, according to a viability study by the DCLG.
Status: Worth a flutter

3 North-West Bicester, Oxfordshire

In opposing the proposed eco-town at Weston Otmoor nearby, Cherwell District Council has come up with an alternative called North-West Bicester (Cherwell). The scheme has since been included on the DCLG shortlist and has been given a ‘B’ rating for sustainability.
Status: Worth a flutter

4 Pennbury, Leicestershire

The 15,000-home proposal near Oadby has attracted much local opposition, including a protest march and a petition signed by 11,000 people.
Status: Long shot

5 Middle Quinton, Worcestershire

A complaint against the advertising for a proposed ‘eco-town’ at Middle Quinton, near Stratford-upon-Avon, has been upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority, which said advertising for the scheme was ‘likely to mislead’. Judi Dench, John Nettles and former Formula One ace Johnny Herbert are among the 6,500 people objecting to plans for 6,000 eco-homes here.
Status: Long shot

6 Weston Otmoor, Oxfordshire

This scheme for 15,000 homes is predicated on an east-west rail link between Oxford and Cambridge and free public transport to Oxford and Bicester for residents. Studies found that this would cost between £530 million and £590 million. It was given only a ‘C’ rating for sustainability.
Status: Long shot

7 Rossington, Yorkshire

Plans for a 15,000-home eco-town on a former coalfield have been watered down to 5,000 homes. The development could end up with a funding shortfall of up to £45 million. The companies behind the scheme say their proposals need ‘a lot more discussion’ with the government.
Status: Long shot
 
8 Rushcliffe, Nottinghamshire

The proposed eco-town of 6,000 homes on the former RAF Newton site is a partnership of Defence Estates, The Crown Estate and Newton Nottingham. The local council has voiced concern that the site at RAF Newton is unsuitable for an eco-town.
Status: Long shot

9 Whitehill Bordon, Hampshire

A community of 5,500 homes would be built on a Ministry of Defence site in the Hampshire countryside, but a local campaign against the proposal has gathered pace. It claims that a ‘large slice of the ancient and peaceful parish of Headley has been earmarked for inclusion in the Whitehill Bordon eco-town’.
Status: Long shot

10 Ford, West Sussex

The proposal for up to 5,500 homes on 87 per cent greenfield land at Ford would need large public subsidies, according to a government report. The scheme has attracted robust opposition. A petition objecting to the eco-town has reached 6,500 signatures. Duncan Goodhew, the Olympic Gold Medalist, has become the latest well-known face to lend his support to the protest campaign.
Status: Long shot

11 North-East Elsenham, Essex

A proposal to create up to 8,000 new homes near Saffron Walden is opposed by Uttlesford District Council. It said in a statement in April: ‘Claims made for sustainability and deliverability have not been submitted to rigorous scrutiny.’ Campaigners say that almost the entire population of the villages of Elsenham and Henham (around 3,000 people) is against building the development.
Status: Long shot
 

12. Coltishall, Norfolk

13. Curborough, Staffordshire

14. Leeds City Region

15. Manby, Lincolnshire

16. Marston Vale, Bedfordshire

17. Hanley Grange, Cambridgeshire

These sites have already been withdrawn from the current shortlist of eco-towns

Status: Dead ducks

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