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Eco towns

The eco-towns debacle is making Hazel Davis green around the gills

Published on August 19th 2008.

Eco towns

Seahaven is a lovely town. All perfectly mowed lawns, white picket fences, pastel-coloured houses and bright blue skies. Everyone is happy and smiling, everyone is well-dressed and nothing bad ever happens.

Architect Lord Rogers, who used to be the government’s advisor on towns and cities has described the idea as “one of the biggest mistakes the government can make

Of course, Seahaven doesn’t exist in real life. It’s the constructed town of The Truman Show, the 1998 Jim Carrey movie. The film might be ten years old but its eerie prediction is about to come true. In a town near you…

Well maybe it’s not quite that sinister but last year the government announced plans for a series of purpose-built UK eco towns, the supposed solution to affordable housing problems and global warming.

The main purpose of the new eco towns is to create affordable housing and sustainable living. At least 30 per cent of housing in each town is to be allocated as affordable, the new towns will be car-free and key roads will have stringent speed restrictions. It’s not clear yet whether, like in Seahaven, once you live there, you will ever be allowed to leave.

Last month the government shortlisted 15 potential sites for the 10 eco-towns and a final decision on 10 sites, with the new planning guidance, will be available later this year. Ministers want five created by 2016, with the other half completed by 2020.

One of the shortlisted sites is Leeds City Region which confusingly comprises Barnsley, Bradford, Calderdale, Craven, Harrogate, Kirklees, Leeds, Selby, Wakefield, and York. A number of eco-town proposals have been submitted for locations within this region but a definite location has yet to be confirmed with suggestions that there is nowhere suitable.

Councillor Robert Light, leader of Kirklees Council and chair of the City Region leaders' panel has described the scheme as “flawed, a fraud and is dead as far as we're concerned.”

Housing minister Caroline Flint said that eco-town status will only be awarded to schemes with high sustainability standards. All the towns’ buildings (both commercial and residential) will have to achieve zero-carbon status. The guidelines dictate that at least 40 per cent of the land within the town must be green space and at least half of this must be accessible parkland.

Sounds too good to be true? The Campaign to Protect Rural England is backing it fully but there has been consternation in other camps.

Architect Lord Rogers, who used to be the government’s advisor on towns and cities has described the idea as “one of the biggest mistakes the government can make” and the Local Government Association has described the towns as “eco-slums of the future” if too little thought is put into economics.

Most of the scheme’s critics rightly point out that creating 100,000 homes in 'carbon neutral' communities, as the government has proposed, will destroy the habitat of many species of animals and plants, that high-density housing will inevitably lead to congestion problems, and that an excess of new homes on the market will cause further depression. Many critics also believe that the green label being bandied about is a front for creating Labour towns within Tory strongholds.

This situation is none more relevant than here in the Leeds City Region (how many of us knew that’s where we lived?) Bradford is a city with an infrastructure already in place. It has cinemas, a hospital, GP surgeries, train stations, a good bus service. And no money or useful workers driving it economically. Surely the answer is to look at potentially fine cities such as this and see what can be done to make them sustainable, reduce emissions and create affordable housing? How can we even consider designating an eco-town when we have yet to solve the socio-economic problems Bradford has?

We hardly have good form when it comes to new towns in this country, as it is. This is the first new-build for whole towns in 50 years. Where are the other new towns now? Just how imaginative and exciting is Runcorn these days? (It was designated a ‘new town’ in 1964 but its spangly new housing development was demolished in the 1990s.) Is Milton Keynes still the shiznitch? Or has its original plan of having no building taller than the tallest tree conveniently fallen by the wayside?

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