A coalition of professional planners, landowners and Tories has come together in opposition to one of the most progressive and vital government initiatives of recent times
It is one year since the housing minister Yvette Cooper launched her eco-town idea, supported by Gordon Brown as he became prime minister. Today the programme belongs to her successor Caroline Flint.
It seems to have been a carefully considered move. The Treasury under Gordon Brown had become increasingly agitated that we were not building enough houses. Firms could not expand because they could not recruit staff. They also saw the effect on people forced to squash together. Kate Barker, the Bank of England economist, had been asked to shake up the planning system to get more houses built. The eco-towns idea was the housing minister’s contribution – with 3 million houses needed, and delivery falling, something had to be done.
Fifty-seven eco-town proposals were submitted by the end of October 2007. The list has since been whittled down to 11 and may shrink further. In due course, each will have to become a planning application and be subject to detailed scrutiny. Meanwhile, the government is preparing to launch a planning policy statement that will “mainstream” the eco-town idea and force the normal planning system to catch up and identify further schemes in the years ahead.
The present programme, although rushed, is definitely worth bothering with. Although 10 eco-towns of 5,000 homes, or even twice that number, will not skim much off the pile of the 3 million homes that need to be built, it is still a significant number of homes that would not otherwise be delivered.
There is also the setting of standards, the “raising of the bar”. Ministers have said that an eco-town should aim for the highest possible environmental standards in construction, energy consumption and water use, and in avoiding using cars for everyday needs. Housing must be built to level six of the Code for Sustainable Homes straight away, while the rest of England is allowed more time to get up to that demanding standard. The Town and Country Planning Association, advising the government, has further recommended that the social and local economic development of the eco-towns should be addressed. These are not just housing projects, but complete communities intended to be as sustainable as possible.
In the real world, a YouGov survey has shown widespread public support for the idea, even to the extent that the majority would be willing to have an eco-town in their neighbourhood
Today there is a lot of politics about the idea. Some eco-town proposals (but not all) have upset a minority of local residents, who have mounted protest campaigns. They have been supported by the usual anti-Labour national newspapers and lazy TV and radio reporters who cannot be bothered to dig deeper into what is going on. The Royal Town Planning Institute, even though it has not consulted its members, has moaned that the ordinary planning system should have been asked to take the lead – a process that would take about seven years to identify a location. Tory local authorities have ganged up in the Local Government Association to oppose the programme, and David Cameron recently said a Tory government would scrap the plans altogether.
However, Cameron cannot wish away the need for new homes, and will be hard-pressed to find a better initiative unless he is willing to roll out another round of government new towns of the type not seen for years. In the real world, a YouGov survey has shown widespread public support for the idea, even to the extent that the majority would be willing to have an eco-town in their neighbourhood.
Every meeting about the design and development of eco-towns is oversubscribed. There is great interest, from the deep green people who want to do whatever it takes to save the planet, to the technical experts who want to install ground-source heat pumps or wood-pellet boilers to make electricity. Something fresh and exciting is stirring.
Things will never the same. General standards are being raised in terms of housing design and layout, use of building materials and techniques, energy efficiency, water neutrality, carbon saving, high quality public transport and a good quality of family life in homes with gardens. People are showing that they expect to have a say in how their town is made, how it earns its daily bread, and how it is managed and maintained in the long run.
Most people are showing that they do not like boring mass housing churned out by volume housebuilders. When we build in the future, we shall be expected to build better and more responsibly, and in a way that suits the unique character of the place and the people who will live there. Eco-towns may lead to a wider choice of better places, and who could object to that?
David Lock is chair of planning consultancy David Lock Associates and a vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association, with which he has conducted research for the communities department on the design and delivery of new communities. His company made four eco-town bids for clients, two of which have been shortlisted. The views expressed are personal.