Expert panel that played ‘key role’ in original process will not scrutinise three new sites

The new bidders for the government’s eco-towns scheme will not have to go through the same process as the original bidders.

Of the 16 bidders shortlisted in April, four have formally withdrawn, with the latest – Tesco – saying it had stepped back from Hanley Grange last week (see below). Two further sites are unlikely to be developed.

Since April three new bidders have emerged – a consortium of public bodies for a site in Norfolk and the Crown Estate and Crown Golf for separate sites near Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire. However, the communities department this week confirmed that they would not face the challenge panel process used to improve the quality of earlier bids.

The revelation is likely to put pressure on the government over the eco-towns process, which critics claim is not robust enough to ensure new towns are genuinely sustainable.

The government had claimed the 12-strong panel, led by John Walker, former chief executive of the Commission for New Towns, would have a “key” role in improving and shaping the future eco-towns.

The communities department said: “The panel was designed to give developers the benefit of its expertise, but it has concluded its work. It was not part of the assessment process, so does not need to be reconvened.”

Stephen Hill, director of consultancy C2O Futureplanners, said the decision was “erratic and inconsistent” and that the selection process was “bizarre”.

Kate Gordon, policy director for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said the challenge panel process had only ever been a “fig leaf” designed to make the plans more palatable. She added: “Everything we’ve seen since the announcement of eco-towns last summer shows the government is just making up the rules as it goes along.”