What has happened to the UK’s eco-towns?

BedZED eco-town
BedZED's energy efficient housing and emphasis on community are a few of the characteristics that have made it a successful eco-town

BedZED's 'green' housing and emphasis on community are a few of the characteristics that have made it a successful eco-town

Although currently out-of-favour with the UK government, eco-towns may still offer the best hope for creating sustainable communities

The UK has a housing crisis. England alone is expected to grow by 232,000 households per year through 2033 without adequate means to accommodate such growth. Couple that with an antiquated infrastructure, and the situation appears quite dire.

In November, the Coalition, lead by Cameron, published its plan to speed up the house-building market while promising to ‘improve design and sustainability’. This promise would be met in two ways: the Green Deal and a zero carbon standard for homes by 2016. The zero carbon standard means, in theory, all carbon emissions from new homes – including heating, lighting, hot water – will need to be abated. The new government admits this may not actually be possible, with emissions ultimately having to be offset. 

The Green Deal, due to launch later this year, is meant to offer incentives to homeowners to improve the energy efficiency of their houses through, for example, fitting better insulation.

What appears to be missing from the plan and political rhetoric is eco-towns. Once heralded as the best way of creating sustainable communities, they now don’t even appear to merit a mention. Calling eco-towns a 'local issue,' a spokesperson for The Department for Communities and Local Governments says it has 'no policy regarding such developments'.

The eco-town dream

Gordon Brown introduced the eco-town concept in 2007 with a bold promise to build 10 new towns. Five years later, four of the selected sites have been approved – North West Bicester in Oxfordshire, Rackheath in Norfolk, St Austell Clay Country eco-communities in Cornwall, and Whitehill Bordon in Hampshire – but are far from being completed. Experts say a lack of planning may be to blame. 

‘The government came up with the term ‘eco-town’ but hadn’t really worked out what the standards meant,’ says Paul de Zylva, of Friends of the Earth. Such standards had to be defined by organisations and individuals with the expertise and experience needed to define such parameters,’ he says. ‘Again, it was government coming up with an idea and giving it a name and a slogan, but actually not putting in the legwork and requiring lots of other people to try and define it.’

In February, plans for Northstowe, an eco-town in Cambridgeshire were resubmitted for approval. Having been originally introduced in 2007, and rejected multiple times, the new Northstowe is being promoted as ‘a vision refreshed.’ 

There is nothing wrong with the concept of an eco-town, de Zylva says, but sustainability should be at the core of all housing development, not reserved for individual towns. ‘It’s eye-catching to call something an eco-town, but why aren’t all developments meeting high standards and pushing the boundaries, rather than just a few?’ Part of the problem is a piecemeal approach that doesn’t look at the whole picture, he says. ‘It has to be part of what we do; it can’t continue to be an add-on.’

Making sustainability ‘part of what we do’ is something Campaign to Protect Rural England was adamant about back in 2008 when the original eco-towns were being considered. ‘Urgent consideration should be given to improving the environmental performance of all development, new and existing,’ they said in a 2008 news release. CPRE is still committed to this notion. ‘That principle should apply, rather than just to a discreet series of developments which are supported by central government but which haven’t come through the local planning system,’ says planning officer Kate Houghton.

‘I think that aspiration was lost in the implementation of the eco-towns themselves, but I think it’s also been lost in overall planning policy,’ she says. Though CPRE offered a ‘cautious welcome’ to the NPPF, Houghton says the policy is still not achieving the high sustainability standards necessary for the future, and that though the term ‘eco-town’ died with the exit of Brown’s administration, green communities, villages and buildings should have a place in the future.

Community more important than green housing

At the core of the eco-town concept was community, and this requires more than a mind for ‘green’ housing.

‘I think one of the big opportunities with eco-towns is actually around sustainable lifestyle and the idea of creating healthy homes for ordinary working people,’ says Kate Henderson, of the Town and Country Planning Association. Though much of the focus has been on eco-technology aspects of such developments, Henderson says simple things like being able to grow your own food, walk your children to school and afford heating are what such communities are about. Eco-towns offer an opportunity to make this way of life a priority from the beginning. ‘If you’re starting something from scratch, really thinking about those things from the offset, it does create a new opportunity to create a better way of life, a better quality of life,’ she says.

Community is at the core of BedZED, the UK’s first and largest Zero Energy Development, which was completed in 2002. BedZed is a One Planet Community pioneered by Bioregional. One Planet Communities must follow a set of 10 strict principles in order to get certified including zero carbon, sustainable transport, and health and happiness. Other One Planet endorsed projects are Sonoma Mountain Village in the US, the One Brighton and One Gallions developments in the UK and the Mata de Sesimbra resort in Portugal. But there are other communities applying the principles in France, Canada, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, China and Australia.

‘Building new communities, which make it easy for people to live sustainable lives, more resilient against rising energy prices and with stronger communities – I think people want that,’ says Sue Riddlestone, co-founder of BioRegional, adding that local authorities need to take charge of such projects. ‘It’s really good if the local authority takes a strong lead role in encouraging what they’d like to see, because they know the area and they know what the local people want,’ she says. 

De Zylva says this is ideal, but will only work if local authorities have the resources to do proper community engagement, and worries developers will always have the upper hand. ‘I think communities have got a lot of other concerns on their plate and, in my experience, tend to fatigue very early, or they just don’t have the capacity to be involved, if they realise it’s essentially a done deal,’ he says, adding that the planning system needs to compliment the efforts of homeowners and empower people to demand higher standards. ‘You can’t just implore people to be green if the system works against them in so many ways,’ he says. ‘Householders need help, not simply being told what to do, and developers and councils have a role in that, as does central government.’

Eco-towns in Europe

Eco-towns have been quite successful in other European countries, setting high standards for future developments. Such examples include Adamstown in Ireland, three Amersfoort suburbs in The Netherlands and Hammarby Sjöstad, an urban extension of Stockholm in Sweden. Germany has been particularly committed to such developments with HafenCity and Kronsberg, and two urban extensions in Freiburg. And in the United States there’s Mesa del Sol in New Mexico and Babcock Ranch in Florida.

All four experts agree that retrofitting housing must also be a priority, and that sustainable communities need to be integrated not isolated. ‘Seamlessly interlacing the new build with the existing homes and making the whole community really strong and resilient is the way I think the future’s going,’ says Riddlestone, adding that Bioregional is working to retrofit the homes in Hackbridge, where BedZED is located.

De Zylva says the desperate need for development presents a great opportunity to finally change the ways things are done.  ‘Our planning system classically looks at each development, each planning sector or each supermarket or road on its own merit,’ he says. ‘What it doesn’t do is say how is this contributing? How is this development adding to the overall picture?’


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