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Eco-towns are truly dead

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Leader: Don’t believe the hype – eco-towns are well and truly dead, says Rory Olcayto

Last month, the AJ said government plans for 10 zero-carbon eco-towns were dead. Last week however, housing minister John Healey announced ‘the first four pioneer locations for England’s eco-towns’. Did the AJ get it wrong?

No, and here’s why. Each of the four towns – Rackheath in Norfolk, St Austell in Cornwall, North-West Bicester in Oxford­shire and Whitehill Bordon in Hampshire – will not in fact be zero-carbon. Instead, each dwelling will be specified to level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes. Only homes built after 2016 will meet level 6 of the Code, which equates to zero-carbon.

As the Tory shadow housing minister Grant Shapps said, eco-town homes will be less ‘green’ than many others constructed throughout the UK in the same phase of delivery. Next month, for example, demolition work should begin at Hanham Hall near Bristol, where Barratt will build 195 zero-carbon homes for Britain’s first ‘eco-village’.Healey’s defence of this scenario is that eco-towns will be greener than most new-build homes are. But eco-towns were supposed to herald a new zero-carbon society and culture. Talk about lowering expectations.

What is more, the timescale of delivery is unclear. Press speculation predicted that Healey would say construction of the eco-towns would be ‘under way’ by 2016 – and this is how the BBC reported the news last week – yet he sidestepped this with a clever fudge. He said he ‘expects’ 10,000 homes to be built by 2016. That’s hardly a forceful commitment – and corresponds to just two eco-towns. If the BBC is right – and, given that the normal planning process must be observed, it probably is – that puts a nine-year gap between Brown’s first mention of the towns and the proposed start date.

Way back in October 2007, then housing minister Yvette Cooper stated that a design panel of by local citizens would help determine the appearance of the eco-towns. That idea has been quietly dropped. What has happened is the reverse: the badly planned programme has seen a poorly consulted public determine their disappearance through planning objections. The AJ got it right.

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