View from Whitehall: A repeated refrain has been directed at the communities department in recent months: that it fails to deliver on key objectives. Now, it must work hard to make sure that eco-towns strike the right note, says Nick Raynsford

The communities department is in danger of acquiring a reputation for poor delivery on key objectives. Hard on the heels of the botched introduction of home information packs last summer came the highly critical National Audit Office report on Thames Gateway implementation and widely voiced concerns about the review of the Construction Act.

So how the department carries forward the eco-town initiative will be crucial if it is to restore its reputation. Eco-towns have a huge significance in the government’s housing policy. They symbolise the commitment to expanding housing output in a sustainable and environmentally progressive way. They were also the only unquestionably new element in the housing green paper, which was issued shortly after Gordon Brown took over as prime minister.

There is a great deal going for the eco-town policy. It builds on Britain’s substantial development expertise. We led the world with Ebenezer Howard’s concept of garden cities and the new towns programme of the post-war era; and today many of Britain’s leading consultants are designing and helping to develop eco-cities as far afield as China and the Middle East. So it must make sense to use that expertise here at home.

However, while the concept is sound and the skills are there to make a success of it, there remain a number of concerns about how eco-towns translate from drawing board to reality.

First is the selection of appropriate sites. For eco-towns to work, they must be correctly located to meet the economic and social needs of particular areas, while at the same time meshing with local transport networks and avoiding adverse environmental impacts. This does not fit comfortably with the

broad-brush communities department prospectus of one eco-town in each region. In reality, there may well be a case for several in some regions and none in others. Nor should the total be determined by an arbitrary number – initially five, then doubled to 10 – set by government. The output should reflect the scope to achieve truly sustainable developments in locations where they are needed and will work.

Eco-towns are not a ‘quick fix’. Political and financial commitment over decades will be required, not just a little pump-priming

The bidding process has, unfortunately, prompted a number of landowners and developers to dust off old development schemes in the hope that with a new “green” veneer they will secure the planning permission that previously was not forthcoming. While not every recycled scheme should be automatically rejected – some may well have potential – the risk to the credibility of the eco-town concept is obvious. The anti-development lobby has already begun to latch on to this “wolf in sheep’s clothing” critique. If it is allowed to gain traction, it could fatally damage the whole initiative.

Third, there is the curious requirement that all eco-towns should be freestanding entities comprising between 5,000 and 20,000 homes. This sets eco-towns apart from sustainable urban extensions as though the two concepts are fundamentally different. In practice, some of the country’s most successful new towns, such as Peterborough and Northampton, were expansions of existing settlements. A similar flexibility to explore both free-standing and expansion models without unduly rigid numerical criteria would surely be sensible.

If greater flexibility is desirable in selecting eco-town sites, it is even more important in terms of the oversight and management of their development. Looking for lessons from the earlier generations of new towns, we cannot ignore the extent to which those that adapted to reflect changing economic patterns and social aspirations proved much more successful than those conceived on a rigid blueprint that was difficult to alter.

Finally, in addition to flexibility, there is a real requirement for sustained investment over many years to ensure a successful new community. Attracting private investment will be vital, but ongoing public funding will be necessary for the social and physical infrastructure. Eco-towns are emphatically not a ‘quick fix’. Political and financial commitment over decades will be required, not just a little pump-priming and a large measure of hope.

Latest indications suggest that many of these lessons are being absorbed and that the selection of the potential eco-town frontrunners will be much more rigorous than some feared, on the basis of the original prospectus. Let’s hope this proves correct – because making a success of eco-towns will be vital not just for the country’s housing needs, but also for the reputation of the communities department.