The government is breathing life into eco-towns, but the past 18 months have been profoundly discouraging for the private sector

The announcement by John Healey, minister for housing, of the locations of the first four eco-towns, ends a period of controversy, uncertainty and cost for many people and organisations across England.

Of the 57 schemes originally put to the government in the autumn of 2007, only two have made it to the final list – Whitehill/Bordon in Hampshire and St Austell in Cornwall.

The other two (Rackheath in Norfolk and north-west Bicester in Oxfordshire) emerged after April 2008 as council-prompted alternatives to candidate schemes.

A second wave of six eco-towns was promised in Healey’s statement and a £5m fund has been put together to help local authorities bring more locations forward. Two have been picked out from the 2008 shortlist – Rossington near Doncaster and Elsenham in Essex.

Councils, local residents, campaigners and developers have spent 18 months or so grappling with the concept of building settlements of at least 5,000 dwellings that exemplify “one planet living”. Stakeholder meetings, public exhibitions, technical meetings, legal challenges and, in one case, parliamentary select committee hearings have contributed to the furore. For those developers who have engaged wholeheartedly in the process, the return has hardly been encouraging.

As an initiative that was founded around the need to deliver housing, but to do so sustainably, the eco-towns project stands on a knife edge

Eco-towns will really only come forward with local support and, in the case of the “second wave”, through the development plan system. Despite the encouragement of private sector involvement in the eco-town identification process, it seems inevitable that the planning of the second wave schemes will also rest with local authorities and government agencies. This poses challenges, as comparatively few new settlements have come through the development plan process. Once identified, the process from identification to approval is protracted: Northstowe in Cambridgeshire is still tied up in the planning permission process, 17 months after the application was first submitted, and it took more than a decade for Cambourne, Cambridgeshire (at 4,200 dwellings) to deliver 2,000 dwellings from its start in 1998.

This puts into context the challenge in delivering the 10,000 dwellings in the first four eco-towns that the government intends by 2016. Funding is promised by the government to the tune of £130m – of this, £70m is earmarked to support community organisations setting up within the eco-towns, including for the purchase of community assets.

Delivery will, however, rest with the private sector. It is perhaps fortunate that there will be an appreciable planning phase leading up to the point where land is marketed and investment becomes essential: there is at least a little while for economic recovery to set in before the development industry is asked to make its principal investment in eco-towns. But there is a significant need for investment in land, in infrastructure, in construction – and most immediately in complex planning and design work if the eco-towns are to meet their targets.

As an initiative that was founded around the need to deliver housing, but to do so sustainably, the eco-towns project stands on a knife edge unless or until private sector energy and enterprise can be harnessed. Given the knocks that the development industry has taken in the process so far, will it have the stomach and resources to re-engage now?