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Eco-towns only the first step

Opinion: The government needs to do much more than build eco-towns to combat climate change, says Rynd Smith

This week, the government confirmed its preferred locations for four new eco-towns after a long and, some would say, tortuous process, with its fair share of political intervention. The announcement represents a significant effort by government to respond to concerns raised by the planning and development sectors and local communities.

Yet the question remains as to whether freestanding eco-towns can be considered sustainable, since, in the absence of significant new transport investment, the majority of their residents are likely to commute by private car. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) had challenged the government to adopt a zero-carbon definition for eco-towns that would take account of the transport emissions generated. While the new transport standards require planning applications to demonstrate how trips will be made by non-car means and how the carbon impact of eco-town transport proposals will be monitored, they do not set an overall carbon budget objective for transport. So the issue of how to monitor and manage transport-related carbon emissions has still not been resolved.

When the eco-towns programme was first announced, it rightly caused consternation among people who saw new towns being parachuted into their area with little community involvement in their location and little demonstration that they would be innovatively green. So we’re glad that the government has confirmed that eco-towns will not involve the ‘switching-off’ of the development planning system. Proposals will have to go through the normal planning process.

But building eco-towns will never be more than a small piece in the jigsaw of responding to climate change. This is why the RTPI has called on the government to develop integrated eco-standards for green communities, whether these are new towns, urban expansions, or projects to deliver raised density within existing urban areas. This exercise would refresh its existing spatial policies for eco-development and renewable energy and link these to the Code for Sustainable Homes, zero-carbon homes and non-domestic buildings initiatives to create a systematic body of standards and policies. Most importantly, it would examine ways in which planning and design can make the existing building stock more sustainable.

The government needs to act now to shift from an ‘eco-towns’ to an ‘eco-quarters’ policy. It needs to generalise as many green standards as possible and test new ways of greening our existing homes and enhancing their relationship with work and the economy.

If we are to have any chance at all of meeting our climate change targets, we need to get serious about sustainable building and construction – and cross-party support will be needed for the policy changes that are necessary.

Rynd Smith is director of policy and partnerships at the RTPI

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