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Eco-towns aren't anything without their local communities

The eco-towns can't ignore their less-green neighbours

We now have the government’s Planning Policy Statement (PPS) draft on eco-towns. Unfortunately, it sets up the mother of all bunfights, as the eco-towns endeavour to obtain planning approval.

According to the PPS, eco-towns should be sufficiently sized and have the services to make viable, separate and distinct communities. They should have the complete spectrum of house types and tenures, together with social, leisure and work facilities and the associated infrastructure. Transport links to ‘higher order centres’ are needed. There should be plenty of clear space between an eco-town and its neighbours.

This all sounds like good stuff, but how does it look for the local communities that eco-towns are turning their backs on? Even transport links to ‘higher order centres’ are bypassing these local communities. Eco-towns don’t seem to be giving anything back to the existing centres, just taking from the countryside amenity.

The government says that eco-towns are to follow the conventional planning approval route, via a planning system in which we have spent 65 years empowering local communities – the very people who stand to lose the most. This is destined to fail.

The need for change is clear. A developmental critical mass is essential for the quantity of rethinking needed to achieve our green goals. It allows the focus be to placed on achieving the step-change cost-effectively, and finding ways to feed this change into the wider world.

Working on a community scale brings down zero-carbon costs. Power generation normally involves producing considerable waste-heat, ideal for a mixture of existing stock with high-heat demands and new-build’s more modest heat demands. Eco-towns could be catalysts for getting renewable energy into our difficult-to-upgrade existing stock. The last thing we want is lengthy work to take place because new and existing housing stock have been treated separately.

New-builds in the wider community should also benefit. Our mild climate means only a month of heating is necessary if super-insulation is used, so why the need for complex and expensive mechanical ventilation with heat recovery? Surely 20A consumer units suffice, instead of the 100A units that are standard? Do we need that £1,200 heat-meter substation in each home? Likewise, beware the cost of the renewables used to run heat-pumps. This may appear pedantic, but if we are trying to reduce resource demand, there should be systems savings – and that money should be directed into the wider community.

This PPS, which directs separation of eco-towns into isolated eco-enclaves, is folly and will grind to a standstill in the planning system. Eco-towns need to be a more integrated initiative, and they need to be seen to give something positive back to the existing communities.

Chris Twinn is director of Arup

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