>> Brown unveils vision for eco towns
>> Developments could deal with the housing crisis and environmental aims
>> Details and funding remain unclear
Gordon Brown has been grappling with the problem of how to alleviate the housing shortage when an increasingly environmentally conscious public is wary of new building on green belt sites.
His answer appeared cunning. A new generation of ‘eco towns’ would be built, helping to increase housing supply while placating the environmental lobby. But many are now questioning exactly how green the prime minister’s eco building vision is, and if councils could be sidelined in the towns’ construction.
The debate about new towns gained pace last week when housing minister Yvette Cooper announced that the government would run a design competition for eco towns with the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment. Meanwhile, health secretary Alan Johnson signalled interest from other departments in the initiative by suggesting the new settlements could become exemplars for how to plan for healthier lifestyles.
The government has said it is keen for councils to volunteer sites for new settlements. But in practice, few appear willing to follow the lead taken by Isle of Wight Council, which is devising plans to become the world’s first energy self-sufficient island.
The list of attendees at a seminar for prospective eco town bidders, held at the Department for Communities & Local Government last month, shows that just a handful of councils Cambridge City Council, Cambridgeshire CC, Runnymede DC and Wirral MBC attended. Others, like Birmingham and Manchester City Councils, have expressed an interest in winning eco town status, but their proposals involve the redevelopment of brownfield sites so do not meet the criteria laid down by the government (see box).
The local government representatives at the seminar were greatly outnumbered by land owners and developers.
Clive Harridge, former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, who was at the seminar, says there is still a lot of uncertainty about funding for the new settlements. “The government has said there will be support, but the level of that is yet to be announced,” he says.
Concern is growing that development could be forced down councils’ throats.
The government’s eco town prospectus, published during the summer, sets out two fast track approaches for designating where eco towns should go. One option will be to carry out mini-reviews of the regional spatial strategies (RSS), which councils’ own local development frameworks must comply with, to earmark areas as eco towns. The other is to use powers in the New Towns Act, under which the government can designate locations, subject to a public inquiry.
Neil Sinden, deputy director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), is concerned that the decision making process for the new developments appears to sidestep the established decision-making process.
“They are not going to work if they are imposed top down on local communities and they are divorced from the normal planning process,” he says.
Mr Sinden says the CPRE would prefer to see proposals for eco towns emerging through councils’ own local development frameworks so that decisions on their location can be examined in the round.
He also has deep reservations about the prime minister’s statement that there should be an eco town in every region. “By saying this, you are pre-empting whether there is a need in every region,” he says.
The Planning Officers Society’s (POS) response to the housing green paper shares the CPRE’s concerns, saying that it is “essential” that any proposals for eco towns are brought forward through the RSS process.
Mr Harridge, now managing director of planning consultancy Entec, says there are risks in relying on the private sector to bring forward sites. “You can’t depend on land brought forward by developers. The sites being proposed for development may not be appropriate.”
Many of the sites being touted by attendees at last month’s seminar have been found wanting in the past on planning grounds. An example is Rugby Radio Station, which was the subject of a long planning inquiry in the late 1990s. The site would prove popular with developers due to its transport links to London and the south-east.
However, Andy Cowan, head of planning at Warwickshire CC, says that the area’s authorities back the draft West Midlands RSS, which prioritises growth on a north/south spine far to the west of Rugby, running down from the relatively depressed towns of Nuneaton and Bedworth through Coventry to Leamington Spa. The plan is based on the premise that any growth will be accommodated by expanding existing settlements. “In terms of meeting the needs falling on the sub-region, eco towns don’t have a role to play,” he says.
He says new settlements could undermine attempts to promote the regeneration of Coventry and the north Warwickshire towns, which are adjusting to the decline of traditional industries like mining and car manufacturing.
By their very nature, say critics, the eco towns will not be truly sustainable because they are likely to heavily depend on the car. By contrast, even the most peripheral urban extension will be able to plug into existing bus networks.
Mr Cowan says: “The costs are inevitably going to be enormous and will distract essential infrastructure from expanding towns whether it’s brownfield sites or sustainable urban extensions.”
POS’s green paper response says: “Location is a vital consideration as, for example, any benefits that result from the specification could be offset by unsustainable patterns of commuting. We are concerned that eco towns should not become a fig leaf of respectability, used to promote development in what would otherwise be less than sustainable locations. ”
The acid test for any eco town should be where it is located, says the POS response.
The CPRE’s Mr Sinden argues that the government should allow eco towns to be located in or on the edge of existing settlements as opposed to the free standing locations it currently envisages. The Swedish showpiece development of Hammarby, which is held up in the DCLG’s own eco towns prospectus as a showpiece of sustainable development, would not comply with the government’s current criteria because it is part of Stockholm.
Town & Country Planning Association chief executive Gideon Amos, whose organisation is advising the government on its eco town plan, insist that the new communities will be sustainable. Each town will have a minimum of 5,000 homes, reckoned to be the minimum needed to sustain a secondary school, which he argues is the benchmark for a functioning community.
Mr Amos says that one of the biggest factors when determining the sites for eco towns should be transport connections. “Provided there’s good public transport, there’s no reason it should be any more or less sustainable than existing places,” he says, adding that the potential sustainability downsides could be outweighed by potential eco benefits.
The low value of land in greenfield areas not been designated for development means more money can be invested in better infrastructure, Mr Amos says. “One of the big wins is the ability to build in entire renewable energy services. You can do this in a new settlement in a way you can’t on the edge of existing towns because the land values are higher.”
Setting renewable energy targets
There was widespread concern during the summer when a leak of the government’s draft climate change planning policy statement showed that ministers were considering moves to bar councils from setting area-wide targets for renewable energy generation in new development.
The leak sparked consternation among environmentalists who expressed alarm that the government was stripping councils of a vital power to tackle climate change.
Without such policies in place, they feared developers would have little incentive to install kit including wind turbines, which would in turn hold up the development of a viable renewable energy industry.
A letter from housing minister Yvette Cooper, published last week, has calmed concerns that the government is set to stop councils from introducing so called ‘Merton rules’, named after the south London borough that introduced the first local authority wide target for renewable energy.
The letter, sent out to Merton LBC deputy leader Samantha George (Con), states that the Merton rule will not be scrapped.
But it says that councils will have to take such policies through the full local development framework process.
Ms Cooper rules out renewable energy targets being introduced via supplementary planning documents, which do not have to undergo the full scrutiny of a public inquiry.
It also says that councils should be “sufficiently flexible” to allow for offsite, as well as onsite, generation options. And Ms Cooper says councils should consider other “low carbon opportunities”, such as combined heat and power systems.
Merton LBC has given a cautious welcome to the minister’s letter. But environmentalists are concerned that her reassurances do not go far enough.
Andrew Cooper, head of onsite renewables at the Renewable Energy Association, expresses particular concern at the proposal to allow flexibility on offsite generation. He sees as a worrying straw in the wind, the government’s decision to drop on-site renewable energy targets from its recently published regional spatial strategy for Yorkshire & Humberside.