There's a growing swell of opposition to the government’s Eco-Towns plans, says Ross Sturley
Local communities are objecting, largely on a NIMBY basis. Various eco-warriors (and people like architect Richard Rogers) are saying that they're just a bad idea, and that in any case they can’t really be eco-towns if they’re built in on Greenfield or out-of-town locations.
To be honest, you’d think they have a point there, rural public transport isn’t known for its frequency around the locations planned, and unless people are intended – Prisoner style – to never leave the towns, that could be a challenge to a zero carbon footprint.
Rogers et al argue that these new communities must be inserted into existing urban settings – one anti-eco-town protestor in the Midlands suggested Hyde Park as a suitable location. Now with the Leeds site withdrawn from the list, where are the potential urban locations? There’s not many cities with areas where you could insert 15,000 plus homes.
Most damaging of all, developers hard-pressed by the credit squeeze are beginning to say that they're not really interested in being environmentally friendly anymore. Funnily enough, when the lenders want to reduce loan-to-value ratios there’s an even stronger focus than usual on cutting out anything that isn’t critical to the development. Any cost not fundamental to building the thing will not be borne by a commercial developer.
That there has also been some doubt sown on the overall pace of climate change hasn’t helped, but largely we’ve gone past that debate now. It’s just simply a question of cost. And while payback on wind generation (in energy savings) is still 37 years, it’s unlikely that such technology will find its way into commercial developments.
A grim green future
So the public desire to build eco-towns is waning, and the developers are increasingly uninterested – Eco-towns will not be built.
But can branding play a helping hand here? When the government elected to brand these towns ‘Eco’, they thought it would help - new communities living in harmony and balance with their environment in a lovely green sort of way, but still having nice warm houses, roads, cars, with shops, swimming pools and fields nearby, and with none of that living in haystacks nonsense.
However, the ‘Eco’ label now seems a big fat albatross - and worse, it’s a diversion from the key desire – to accelerate the provision of affordable homes to an undersupplied market through building new communities in a way that doesn’t cost the Earth. As long as we’re arguing about the Eco side of things, the Town bit won’t happen.
Maybe if they were rebranded, things might be better. Let’s ditch the greenwash, admit that new towns in non-urban settings are not necessarily all that ‘eco’, and spin them differently. 'New Towns' sounds a bit fifties, so how about '21st Century Towns', 'Communities for the future'.
Perhaps best of all would be 'Brown Towns', or maybe if we delayed the rebranding to the Labour Party Conference - 'Milliband Towns'.