Robert Shaw, who worked with the TCPA and CLG to provide independent advice and develop guidance for developers and land owners about the settlements, says it's time for boldness on Eco-towns, not retreat.

Robert Shaw

Eco-towns have been receiving a great deal of negative press. Should we be taking this as evidence that they are a bad idea? An ill thought through way of forcing unwanted housing on communities by bypassing normal decision-making routes? Or are we asking the wrong people and looking in the wrong places for support?

The Eco-town initiative was launched over a year ago, seemingly with little of the criticism that might have been expected from the announcement that five, and later ten, new towns would be constructed over the next nine years. There was even broad support from the unlikely quarters of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

Of course, no locations had been discussed at this point and the Government had given little indication of what the process for their designation would be. The first stirrings of unease came with the Government’s decision to keep the details of the proposals submitted at the end of October 2007 a secret. The charge that the process for long listing and eventually short listing the proposals that will eventually go forward is shrouded in mystery has been made by many, including the Local Government Association and opposition parties. It has been jumped on by some as a reason why eco-towns should not go ahead and has certainly not helped the Government win the arguments in favour.

However, in the wider scheme of things this is a relatively minor issue. All short listed proposals will enjoy full scrutiny. This will be through the Government’s own assessment process, consisting of: Strategic Environmental Appraisal; independent financial appraisal; transport assessment; and the Challenge Panel. Proposals surviving this will then be subject to the rigors of the planning process. Others, including the Town and Country Planning Association, have described what this will entail.

Battle for hearts and minds

The bigger issue is winning the hearts and minds of the population. This is something that the Government has yet to get a grip on. Read the press and you will get the distinct impression that there is little or no support for eco-towns. One of the principal reasons for this is that there are two populations: the national, who consider the question as one of whether eco-towns are generally a good thing and whether particular proposals are good from a national or regional perspective; and the local. Here people generally think more in terms of whether the eco-town being proposed a few miles away is good for them or their community. Both populations are entitled to have opinions, but the two don’t often sit comfortably together.

Well organised opposition groups have been established. Middle Quinton near Stratford upon Avon has attracted high profile support from the likes of Dame Judy Dench and has been successful in creating a media presence. Similarly, opponents of Pennbury to the south east of Leicester have been vocal in their opposition to the location of the eco-town. Notably in the instance, however, is a broad agreement that a new community somewhere in the region is needed. Other proposals are facing similar opposition.

Much of the media attention seems to have focussed on these local fights. Discussion around the national need has strayed little beyond the ‘process’ issues referred to earlier. But, there is a bigger picture out there and it tells a different story.

Ebenezer Howard silenced his critics with Letchworth Garden City, and in doing so he created one of the most successful new settlements anywhere in the world.

The site of the proposed Pennbury Eco-town in Leics. (c) Rataedl

Listen to the majority

A recent YouGov poll of 1,693 people published in the Observer newspaper found that 46 per cent strongly support, or tend to support, the development of eco-towns. Only 9 per cent strongly oppose or tend to oppose them, and 45 per cent were neutral or did not know. Of course the people polled may not live close to a proposed town, but shouldn’t these people have a voice too? Lack of access to suitable affordable housing in decent communities is a widespread problem after all and, if we’re to address the accepted need for homes, these homes have to go somewhere.

However, evidence also suggests that some people living close to proposed eco-towns are also in favour. A recent meeting held in Leicestershire to discuss the Pennbury proposal gave an overwhelming impression of opposition but one young woman piped up to say "I need a home and want to live in an eco-town – where can I put my name down?". It is all too easy to listen to those that shout loudest and assume that theirs’ is the collective opinion. This has always been a problem for those trying to get meaningful results from community engagement. On a subject as important as this it is vital that decision-makers dig a little deeper to gain a fuller understanding of opinion.

This leaves us with two questions. Is the wider need for new communities sufficient to outweigh local opposition and if so, is the eco-towns programme the right one? The answer to both has to be yes.

Eco-towns are the best option

Despite the reservations discussed above about the process eco-towns are the right approach. The reasons are as follows:

  • Local concerns cannot be the only determining factor. There are wider and equally legitimate needs. The initiative has for the first time in decades made it clear that new settlements are back on the planning agenda as a development option, alongside urban regeneration and urban extensions. This is where they should stay.
  • The process may be flawed and may show the Government to be overly timid in promoting eco-towns, but it is not fatally flawed. Those opposed are always going to find fault.
  • Climate change presents such an enormous challenge that any initiative that allows us to test new approaches and create the economies of scale necessary to take low carbon technologies to the next level in terms of viability has to be a good thing.

The time has come for the Government to be bold. Each eco-town will be subject to the rigors of the planning process, and rightly so. But once the decision to build has been taken all the necessary resources need to be made available to make sure they get built and built to the highest sustainability standards. The Development Corporation model used to build the New Towns gets my vote since it brings together revenue raising and plan-making powers in a single purpose body. But which ever model is adopted it is important that the momentum is not lost.

Looking to history it is clear that there has always been opposition to building new towns. Ebenezer Howard silenced his critics with Letchworth Garden City, and in doing so he created one of the most successful new settlements anywhere in the world. The eco-towns programme gives us a fantastic opportunity to create the successful new communities of the 21st Century.