As objectors from across England join forces to protest against eco-towns, Conservatives withdraw support for the new towns

Opponents of eco-towns from across England are to hold a joint protest outside parliament today, just as the Tory party announces it has turned against the government plan for low-carbon new communities.

The demonstrators, including council representatives and pressure groups opposed to nine specific sites among the 15 shortlisted, will hand in their responses to the first round of public consultation before heading off to meet shadow housing minister Grant Shapps to discuss the Tory change of heart.

The Conservatives said their withdrawal of support for eco-towns was prompted by “a series of u-turns by the government watering down their green credentials”. Shaps described the policy as "an eco-con mired in controversy and utterly discredited. Gordon Brown's brainchild has descended into a farce."

The Tories claim that the government, in a rush to push the schemes through, is ignoring the views of local communities and imposing unsustainable development that would increase car use and destroy greenbelt land.

They also object to the lowering of the level of the Code for Sustainable Homes that eco-towns must meet - now only code level 3, when all other new housing must meet level 6 by 2016, the date by which the first five eco-towns must be built.

A variety of high-profile individuals and groups have already criticised the planned eco-towns, including Sir Richard Rogers and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Concerns include the choice of greenfield sites, violation of local area plans, and a lack of evidence that schemes will be genuinely sustainable – for instance, because of the inherent level of car dependence in small communities.

However, the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) today spoke out in support of eco-towns, arguing the case for urgent new housebuilding in rural areas.

Chief executive Gideon Amos said: “The voices of those without a home can barely be heard above those already comfortably housed – it’s our responsibility to hear their side of the argument too.

“Keeping homes and people out of the countryside will be at the expense of those living in towns and cities who will have to accept the continuing loss of open spaces and developments now described as ‘super density’. High-rise urban blocks only work as an alternative for the minority – those with families deserve the green spaces and decent homes that eco-towns could offer.”

The TCPA quotes a government-commissioned survey by YouGov, published today, which shows widespread support for eco-towns among the general public even in their own local areas. Among those polled, 46% were in favour and only 9% against.

The shortlist of 15 sites – including Elsenham in Essex, Pennbury in Leicestershire and Ford in West Sussex – is due to be narrowed down later this year to 10, on which sustainable new towns will be built by 2020.

The second round of the government’s public consultation on eco-towns, involving a series of roadshows around the shortlisted sites, is expected to be announced by housing minister Caroline Flint shortly.