Sensible new proposals for underpinning the environmental credentials of eco-towns risk getting swamped in the torrent of negative news.

The eco-town has endured perhaps its worst week since it was conceived at the beginning of Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministerial reign 13 months ago.

Policy evangelists have had to get used to difficult questions about the environmental authenticity of the plans and to protests from residents in areas near to eco-town proposals. Now lawyers to the Local Government Association have questioned the permissibility of the concept, arguing the proposals illegally bypass local government planning regulations.

But lost among the nimbyism, misinformation and legitimate concerns is a set of standards which would likely prove invaluable in making the eco-town project stand up as a genuinely sustainable proposition.

Even as she was facing down the legal challenge from the LGA lawyers on last Wednesday’s Newsnight programme, Housing Minister, Caroline Flint was putting the finishing touches to her speech launching the proposals.

“These would be the toughest standards ever set out for new developments and demonstrate that there will be no compromise on quality with eco-towns,” she said.

Ecotown proposals
How many will hear the whirr of a mechanical digger?

Those proposals include zero-carbon status for all commercial and residential buildings within the schemes, at least 40% of the land within the schemes dedicated to green space, and insisting on at least a code 4 for sustainable homes rating for all dwellings.

This government looks more doomed than Pompeii when Vesuvius started bubbling, and Gordon Brown is about as popular as an alcohol ban at a cousin’s wedding

But no matter how sensible the underlying fabric of policy, the whole notion has become a victim of the unpopularity of the Labour government, and particularly Gordon Brown whose ideas, no matter how good, have begun to be seen through a prism of incompetence and incumbency fatigue.

The plan for five eco-towns (later doubled to ten) was one of his first announcements when he became Prime Minister in June 2007 and they became one of his government’s flagship policies. But now this government looks more doomed than Pompeii when Vesuvius started bubbling, and Gordon Brown is about as popular as an alcohol ban at a cousin’s wedding.

It is not difficult to imagine that, with the Tories having already withdrawn support for the schemes, eco-towns could become one of the first victims of Labour’s grim unpopularity.

Already two council-promoted schemes and two developer-promoted schemes have been withdrawn. A fifth is under fundamental review and a sixth, Rushcliffe, looks unlikely to be able to get its bid together in time, as developer Crown Estates produced its initial plans a month ago.

The potential of the green standards to make the eco-towns credible in their own right, and useful yardsticks for future sustainable development, is unlikely to do much to halt this commercial and political swing.

The potential cost of having the proposals shelved, and the dwindling cash reserves of most of Britain’s leading developers means most of the 15 shortlisted developments are unlikely to hear the whirr of a mechanical digger. Last month, Flint admitted as much when she said the government was looking at “up to 10” schemes.

Such backpedalling will, no doubt, please eco-towns’ myriad opponents. But this week’s green standards means they will at least not have won the battle on environmental grounds.