Location, location, by Neil Merrick

10 Jul 08
On the surface, eco-towns seem to tick all the right boxes, providing essential new homes without harming the planet. So why are the locals up in arms? Neil Merrick reports

11 July 2008

On the surface, eco-towns seem to tick all the right boxes, providing essential new homes without harming the planet. So why are the locals up in arms?

Four days after helping organise a protest march across the West Sussex countryside, Vicky Newman remains buoyed by the turnout against a planned eco-town near the historic town of Arundel.

About 2,000 people are estimated to have joined the march – organised by the Campaign Against Ford Eco-town (Cafe) – in early June. 'We had people of all ages. It wasn't just the blue rinse brigade,' stresses Newman, the group's vice chair.

With emotions running high in villages such as Ford and Yapton, which lie at either end of the proposed 5,000-home development, Newman has no doubt that ministers are well aware of the scale of local opposition.

And anger over the eco-town programme extends well beyond West Sussex. Ever since the government published the initial short list of 15 sites in April, protest groups have sprung up across the country, some with celebrity support. Many also have the backing of councils, which could ultimately determine the fate of eco-towns once formal planning applications are submitted.

Eco-towns will provide about 100,000 of the 3 million new homes that Labour wants to be built in England by 2020 – a target that is, in any case, threatened by the recent downturn in the housing market. But the towns themselves, comprising 5,000–20,000 homes, are meant to go much further than providing environmentally friendly housing. Both the houses and the towns' transport and commercial operations will be required to meet the government's zero-carbon targets.

Ministers see the plan for eco-towns, which was announced by Gordon Brown in one of his earliest speeches as prime minister, as providing Labour with its green legacy.

The government wants to build five of the towns by 2016 and up to five more by 2020. But within the past two weeks, a panel of experts appointed by the Department for Communities and Local Government has criticised many of the proposals for being run-of-the-mill plans with only one eye on the environment.

And subsequently developers behind an eco-town at Curborough, Staffordshire, have withdrawn their scheme. East Lindsey Council has also dropped its proposals to build on a former RAF base near its Lincolnshire offices.

Meanwhile, the Local Government Association has weighed in by claiming that the government is riding roughshod over normal planning procedures. Accusing ministers of wanting to use 'new town' powers that bypass local authorities, the LGA warned that the towns could become 'eco-slums of the future' if they are built in isolated areas.

Paul Bettison, chair of the LGA's environment board, says it is likely that local plans would have to be swept aside for any eco-towns to be built. 'If you don't use special powers, it's almost certain that they will all be thrown out without getting their day in court,' he says.

The challenge to the government is fiercer because many residents' groups are backed by famous personalities. Actress Dame Judi Dench, for example, is a supporter of the Bard campaign, which is trying to stop an eco-town at Middle Quinton, near Stratford-upon-Avon. Bard is using a £100,000 donation from an anonymous landowner to apply for a judicial review of the proposal, which could hold up the entire programme for months, if not longer.

The government's response to such criticisms is that a majority of voters in a YouGov poll backed the developments (although this was rather tempered by the caveat that most people didn't want them nearby). Housing minister Caroline Flint says: 'We believe eco-towns can provide new, sustainable housing, which can bring tangible benefits and an improved quality of life for thousands of people.' She has also reassured councils that the towns will not bypass local plans.

However, local government leaders and campaigning groups remain unconvinced of the merits of the plans. LGA chair Sir Simon Milton claims that any carbon reduction achieved by the design of eco-towns will be 'more than offset by people driving miles to buy a loaf of bread or take their children to school'. And Bard's communications co-ordinator, Hilary Bliss, says: 'We are fighting the government. It makes up the rules as it goes along.'

In Oxfordshire, a residents' group fighting plans for a 15,000-home eco-town near the M40 at Weston Otmoor includes the parents of former tennis player Tim Henman. Paul Davison, spokesman for Weston Front, says its campaign will continue throughout the summer. 'The process is being rushed,' he claims. 'The government could try and force eco-towns through based on planning guidance notes and circumvent local policies.'

Back in West Sussex, Vicky Newman is keenly following the progress of other protest groups via the internet. 'Have you read Caroline Flint's comment piece in the Yorkshire Post?' she asks. 'She claims to be embracing local planning but she is setting the framework that local government must follow.' According to Newman, Arun District Council did a 'superb job' in studying the proposed eco-town near her Yapton home. Its public inquiry exposed the 'large holes' in proposals by Ford Airfield Vision Group and Ford Enterprise Hub, the landowners and developers behind the scheme.

Arun's six-day inquiry in late May heard evidence from developers, residents and a range of other organisations. Ultimately, the council confirmed its opposition to the scheme, but Arun chief executive Ian Sumnall says it showed that it was a responsible planning authority. 'It is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction, but that leaves us open to the argument that we didn't properly examine the proposal before we came to a decision.'

Ian Tant, a planning consultant representing the developers, was also impressed. 'We were apprehensive about how it might turn out, but in the end all credit to Arun council for coming up with the idea [for an inquiry],' he says.

Although Ford Airfield Vision Group has suggested moving Ford railway station closer to the new homes and seems keen on waste recycling, it has yet to come up with many features that define an eco-town. 'We want to make this work but we recognise that there is a lot more to be done to turn our vision into workable proposals,' says Tant.

Between 30% and 50% of homes in each eco-town will be 'affordable', including social rented and low-cost ownership housing. It has been suggested that only one in two households will be allowed to own a car. Newman insists that Cafe's supporters are not 'Nimbys' and recognise that more affordable housing is required in the district. At a pinch, they might accept limited development at Ford, home to an open prison, but not the 5,000 homes required for an eco-town – a minimum that is designed to support a secondary school as well as shopping and other facilities.

Plans for up to 2,000 homes on the same site, which includes farmland and a small airfield, were rejected eight years ago. 'It's a case of private landowners making the most of a golden opportunity to put housing on greenfield land,' says Newman, a chartered surveyor.

The theme of developers and landowners jumping on the eco-town bandwagon is repeated elsewhere. In Leicestershire, where Co-operative Estates hopes to build 15,000 homes, the Campaign Against Stoughton Co-op Eco Town (Cascet) began with protests outside Co-op stores before moving on to countryside marches.

Cascet chair Kevin Feltham says the groundswell of opinion against Stoughton is too great for Harborough District Council, the local planning authority, and the government to ignore. 'There is going to be a general election within two years,' he says. 'Providing there is a change of government, we will be off the list.'

Not all the short-listed sites have provoked opposition. Plans to develop a Ministry of Defence site at Bordon, in Hampshire, for example, have been better received.

The LGA accepts that a minority of councils do support eco-towns but says they must prove that the towns are sustainable. 'If local authorities feel that the developments are appropriate, then we support the authority, given that it's democratically accountable to the people that live in its area,' says Paul Bettison.

However, Conservative shadow housing minister Grant Shapps doubts that the government will come up with more than three sites. He advocates building 'green' extensions to existing towns and villages rather than relying on stand-alone towns. 'By 2016 the government says all homes will be zero-carbon,' says Shapps.

'If that's the case, and the first eco-town won't be built until 2016, then what's the point of them?' He says that eco-standards will be lower in the new towns than in some existing developments.

Although the government has not ruled out using 'new town' planning powers to force through eco-towns, it insists that local planning procedures will be respected. A planning policy statement on eco-towns is due later this month, along with a detailed appraisal of each site. PricewaterhouseCoopers, meanwhile, is studying the infrastructure needs of eco-towns and will report in the autumn, ahead of the final short list.

A DCLG spokesman says the 12-week consultation that closed on June 30 was the first of several opportunities for councils and the public to voice their opinions. Further consultations will follow this month's assessment of each scheme, which might include proposals for alternative locations.

Developers making the final short list will be required to submit formal applications. 'We have adopted a multi-tiered approach to this issue to ensure we identify all possible options for developing eco-towns,' says the spokesman.

The government has clearly been stung by the scale of local opposition to the towns. Last week's opinion poll suggested just 9% of voters oppose them – but this figure rises to 15% when people are asked if they want one within five miles of their home.

And while it is unfair to accuse ministers of failing to consult over the proposals, they must be concerned that they have so little local authority backing, let alone popular support. In spite of what opinion pollsters say, two years from a general election, it is hard to see how an already beleaguered government will steer the eco-town programme forward without risking the wrath of voters even further.

Scenes of contention: the short list

Arun, West Sussex: 5,000 homes on former Ford airfield close to main railway line

Bordon-Whitehill, Hampshire: Up to 8,000 homes on Ministry of Defence site Coltishall, Norfolk: 5,000 homes on former RAF land eight miles from Norwich

Elsenham, Essex: At least 5,000 homes close to M11 and main railway line Hanley Grange, Cambridgeshire: 8,000 homes on land adjacent to the A11

Leeds City Region, Yorkshire: Site still to be determined after 11 local authorities withdrew support

Marston Vale, Bedfordshire: Up to 15,400 homes at former industrial sites close to main railway line

Middle Quinton, Warwickshire: 6,000 homes at former Royal Engineers depot six miles from Stratford-upon-Avon

Pennbury, Leicestershire: Up to 15,000 homes on surplus public sector land four miles from Leicester

Rossington, South Yorkshire: Up to 15,000 homes at former colliery village three miles from Doncaster

Rushcliffe, Nottinghamshire: Site to be determined following talks with Rushcliffe Council after site at Kingston-on-Soar, near Nottingham, was rejected

St Austell, Cornwall: 5,000 homes at former china clay workings, including disused mining pits, owned by Imerys

Weston Otmoor, Oxfordshire: Up to 15,000 homes on site with airstrip adjoining the M40, three miles from Bicester

Three schemes have been withdrawn since the short list was announced: Curborough, Staffordshire; Manby and Strubby, Lincolnshire; and New Marston, Bedfordshire

The good, the bad and the unimaginative

'Could do better' was the verdict of the government's eco-towns challenge panel after studying 13 of the short-listed proposals.

The panel members agreed with Weston Otmoor protesters that an eco-town could become 'commuterville' for nearby Oxford. They also warned developers at Curborough, Staffordshire, that the eco-element of their scheme was merely an add-on to an existing planning application. The scheme has now been withdrawn.

But they did not agree with Arun District Council that an eco-town would require improvements to the Arundel bypass near Ford. The panellists, who include experts on planning and the environment, said this would simply increase car use. They want other forms of transport to be considered.

Panel chair John Walker, former chief executive of the British Urban Regeneration Association, describes some proposals as 'very capable' but says they must be improved. 'We want to push them a lot further,' he says. Developers must illustrate the carbon and ecological footprints of residents so that eco-towns become 'pioneers showing what a sustainable future will look like'. Further meetings are planned during July before the panel is wound up.

Pointing out that the panel was not asked to evaluate the sites themselves, Walker suggests that developers still have an opportunity to win over protesters. 'If they can demonstrate that they [eco-towns] will be leading-edge developments that improve the quality of life for people, they should be able to use that to overcome residents' concerns,' he says.


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