Eco-Towns: without local involvement, forget it

| 17th July 2009
Eco towns
Too much political grandstanding has been done with Eco-Towns - the basic idea is sound, but poor planning and a lack of local involvement will doom them to failure, says Dr Gareth Potts

A process to encourage privately-developed Eco-Towns, primarily new non-urban settlements of 5-15,000 homes, was first announced by the then Chancellor Gordon Brown back in May 2007. The aim was to contribute to the 3 million new homes needed by 2020 and to create environmentally exemplar communities in the process. It was also a big idea to help kick-off his impending Premiership.

Over two years on, four have now been given the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) badge of approval and the chance to bid for a share of £60m to support local infrastructure. They are: Rackheath in Norfolk, Whitehill Bordon in Hampshire, North West Bicester in Oxfordshire and St Austell in Cornwall. CLG is making up to £5m available for councils in the 6 other short-listed areas to conduct further planning. Progress admittedly, but no major impact on the 3million target.

Sadly, there has been little exemplary about the exemplars - of the eleven short-listed Eco-Town proposals just Rackheath got a top rating from the Expert Panel advising on the bids’ environmental quality. The Government could have insisted from the outset that bids match the best international practice (the likes of Hammarby Sjöstad, Sweden, Vauban, Germany and Amersfoort, Holland) and/or offer something novel over and above this – for example, Co-Housing (design for communal living), Self-Build or settlements that used local materials. It didn't.

Even with several rounds of short-listing (at one stage almost 60 proposals were in preparation) much time and money was wasted. Many bids, even short-listed ones, suffered from, amongst other things, lack of financial realism, insufficient environmental measures (including lack of public transport, employment base and amenities) and local opposition (to the bypassing of the existing planning process and/or to site selection).

NIMBYISM will inevitably make Eco-Towns controversial, but the process has been particularly painful because of the need to first establish what Eco-Towns should look like, why they might be needed - and only then to let the existing local and regional planning process decide where they should go. On all fronts there have been problems.

In addition to the expert panel established by the Government to advise on the environmental quality of bids, the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) also produced advisory worksheets alongside the preparation of bids - a moveable feast of decisions rather than a clear starting point.

So where should Eco-Towns go? Architects Sir Terry Farrell and Lord Rogers, journalist Sir Simon Jenkins and academic Professor Anne Power, have been amongst the eminent voices arguing that all the Eco-Town housing can go on urban brownfield land. Two recent Housing Ministers (Yvette Cooper and Margaret Beckett) have expressed enthusiasm for Eco-Quarters within existing urban areas such as the Thames Gateway. Certainly, England is doing well already at getting homes on brownfield land – just over 75 per cent of new dwellings (including conversions) are built on brown-field land and there is room for a million more. Empty homes are down 10 per cent since 1997 but some 300,000 still lie empty for over six months, albeit not always in high housing demand areas.

Building urban extensions into England’s GreenBelts (where just 2 per cent of new homes are built currently) is only feasible where it takes the form of narrow high-density ‘finger’ settlements on less attractive GreenBelt and served by excellent public transport.

But despite these urban regeneration and urban extension possibilities the real driver for Eco-Towns is housing need. Insufficient low-density family housing in urban areas increases the attractiveness of a move to lower-density rural homes – of the type Eco-Towns would offer. In addition to this ‘urban push’ factor is the pull of rural housing need. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has accepted that some Eco-Towns may be justified owing to rural and peri-urban housing need – for affordable housing alone, 700,000 people are on waiting lists in these areas (up 37 per cent since 2003).

Eco-Towns don’t necessarily have to be greenfield or standalone settlements. Whitehill Bordon, will, for example, be an expansion, much of it on brownfield, of an existing village with the amenities and connections to make it sustainable. Eco-Towns have a better chance of being sustainable if they are built around or near areas that offer some combination of existing employment opportunities, amenities and public transport links.

Most controversial has been the fact that less than a handful of bids (and just Whitehill Bordon and St Austell of the four selected) emerged through existing Local Development Frameworks (local authority plans) – instead it was local coalitions of developers and/or some local councillors enthused by central Government’s clarion call.

The Eco-Town Planning Policy Statement, due alongside the final announcement, seems set to promise that future Eco-Town proposals should be identified in the regional and local planning system. However, in giving four towns Eco-Town status now, there are fears that this will make it very difficult for local authority planners to turn these down when they are submitted as formal applications. Time, and the final statement, will tell.

Eco-Towns are important, not least to meet the need for new houses. But the need to protect the countryside means that the green-field variety should be a last resort. Much wasting of time and money and much anguish would however have been avoided if clear national criteria allied to sub-national planning had been the starting point – fail to plan, plan to fail as the old maxim goes.

Dr Gareth Potts is an independent researcher and writer on urban regeneration