What will it be like to live in green land?
The term 'new towns' conjures up grim visions of places like Milton Keynes and Stevenage. But Britain could be about to start building them again. This time, though, writes Mark Lupton, they will aim to battle climate change
Up to ten new settlements of between 5,000 and 20,000 homes could eventually be built. The first residents might begin moving in as early as 2016.
A lot has changed since the likes of Milton Keynes and Stevenage suddenly appeared on road atlases about half a century ago. It is safe to say issues such as climate change would not have topped the agenda of planning meetings when those new towns were a twinkle in planners' eyes.
>So, not surprisingly, as the government prepares to convince the nation it is time for some more new towns, sustainability is going to be the watchword. In fact, these will not be new towns at all, but eco-towns.
And they will be about delivering two equally important aims: building more homes and tackling climate change. Caroline Flint, then housing minister, told the Commons in June that eco-towns were "a unique opportunity to not only address the housing shortage and tackle climate change, but also to trigger economic growth across a whole area".
At the last count there were 12 possible sites vying to make it beyond the drawing board. This was down from a government shortlist of 15 published in April. Those in Manby in Lincolnshire, Curborough in Staffordshire, and Hanley Grange in Cambridgeshire, having pulled out. A scheme in Rossington was downsized - from 15,000 to 5,000 homes - and another in Coltishall, Norfolk, has been thrown into doubt after the government won planning permission to build a prison on the site.
An announcement on which sites will be given the green light will not be taken until early next year. The phrase up to ten is important - in other words, any number between one and ten could win government approval. "These locations would then still need to go through the full planning process," a DCLG spokesperson told Sustainable Business. "We are not taking decisions on whether eco-towns should be built, we are deciding our recommendations on which potential locations we support." So, although to date eco-towns have circumvented the normal planning process for large-scale developments - Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks - once the government decides which sites it likes, the final decision will rest with local planning authorities.
A planning policy statement will be published soon that will set out the levels of sustainability and environmental soundness required of the eco-towns. We have had more than a few hints as to what these might include - not least the government's original eco-towns prospectus published in July 2007. There is clearly a lot of detail to come - including what level of the Code for Sustainable Homes will be required of domestic properties - and each eco-town will have distinctive features. But a picture is already being created of what the government wants the developments to deliver.
The new towns must be zero-carbon developments, and must generate more renewable energy than they take from the National Grid. Each must be an exemplar in at least one aspect of environmental technology and must involve intensive application of a range of environmental technologies, resource efficiency measures, and environmental design.
Plans will need to encourage an increased proportion of journeys on foot, bike or public transport. Importantly, each town must be economically and socially sustainable as well as environmentally - with its own schools, shops, businesses and leisure facilities. With this in mind, the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) has called for each new town to have provision for at least one job per dwelling. They must make good use of brownfield and surplus sector land, have plenty of public green space and have between 30% and 50% affordable homes.
According to the eco-towns prospectus, they should be: "Well- designed, attractive places to live, with good services and facilities, and which connect well with the larger towns and cities close by."
Stella Bland, head of communications at The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) says the principle value of eco-towns will be as exemplars. "At the moment, we don't have any models other than on a small scale," she says.
"We design-review most significant schemes in England every year, so we know there are only a handful of masterplans, or even sizeable housing schemes, that could be described as places designed for sustainability. We are seeing more focus now on reducing energy demand and emissions, but nothing like the same interest in urban design - reducing travel demand, or energy networks. Eco-towns do seem to offer us the possibility to learn."
But, for that to happen, the performance of eco-towns has to be carefully monitored and evaluated, she adds. It is not about snooping on individuals, but knowing the overall environmental performance of a place.
"So that could mean having thermographic cameras to monitor the heat loss from homes, assessing the CO2 emissions from all transport, and even asking people about their diet.The key question is - how would we know if these towns really are eco? Otherwise, people will continue to wonder if they are just a smokescreen for incursions into the countryside to meet housing targets."
CABE has just published a report with BioRegional, the sustainability entrepreneurs behind BedZed, which aims to help people answer exactly that question in preparation for the planning policy statement. What Makes An Eco-town? offers practical guidance on how to tell whether you are living in a sustainable community or not. It covers everything from the way homes are constructed and heated through to transport, food and waste.
Perhaps controversially, CABE also believes eco-towns offer an opportunity to reduce the impact of consumerism on the environment. In short, eco-towns should be places where people will be encouraged to buy less stuff.
"We need to ask how we can stop shopping being the default leisure activity. At the moment, consumer goods account for 13% of an individual's carbon footprint, and our guidance recommends aiming to halve the impact of those consumer goods.
"Partly, that means providing facilities for reuse and repair. But people also need to have other ways to fill their time. That could be as simple as providing space for other things to happen - more allotments for people to grow their own food, sports facilities, playgrounds for children, and space for teenagers to hang out."
But it is not the worthy environmental aspiration of the eco-towns that is the chief bone of contention. The main difficulty facing their proponents is convincing often sceptical local populations that a new settlement should be built on their doorstep.
To date, local plans for eco-towns have run into huge opposition. This has been helped in some cases by hostile local and national media and even celebrity support - Tim Henman and Dame Judy Dench have been name-dropped as fighting plans in their areas. Campaign groups have also been set up - like BARD (Better Accessible Responsible Development), which opposes the Long Marston plans in particular, and eco-towns in general. There is nothing wrong with eco-towns - we just do not want one here, they argue.
Overcoming such opposition remains a key challenge if the new towns are to be built.
Gideon Amos of the TCPA, which has advised the government on eco-towns, says most polls have shown strong national support for the proposals. The TCPA has recently formed a coalition of bodies supporting the plans, which includes 22 independent sustainable-development organisations and charities - from Help the Aged to Shelter.
"This coalition reflects what we believe to be the majority opinion in the country - with most opinion polls showing a 5:1 majority in favour of eco-towns. A fair amount of opposition is to be expected to any large development. It probably didn't help that this initiative had the government's name written all over it. Objectors have gained the limelight in a way that almost any other development of this size wouldn't normally get."
Bland agrees work needs to be done to convince the doubters - but says the opposition probably reflects the well grounded low opinion people have of the quality of most new developments - "so people living there will have to drive instead of being able to walk and cycle. This means it will increase local traffic".
"So the government has got its work cut out trying to justify them. But, if eco-towns can genuinely promise good design, generous green infrastructure, green energy, and their own amenities and services - including public transport - then I think opposition could fade."
It is all about delivery now, says Amos. "Eco-towns provide a number of unique opportunities to advance different technologies and patterns of living and working. These are much more difficult to achieve in already built-up areas.
"The proposals are hugely ambitious and have set us some very important objectives. The standards are higher than for any other developments we have seen to date in this country.
"If we deliver them we will have pioneered a new low-carbon way of living, in better-quality environments and will have thoroughly road-tested completely different solutions to our energy and transport problems that can be applied to development more widely."