Remembering eco-towns

The ego has landed

Back in 2008, eco-towns were presented as something of a recipe for a national green makeover, but as this article by Mark Cantrell from a 2008 edition of Northern Housing suggested, maybe it was more a case of an egotist's red herring

EGO is a major driving force in politics, so it was richly ironic when communities secretary Hazel Blears suggested to the Fabian Society that the Poundbury model village in Dorset was the creation of a royal ego-trip. Only the day before, her ministerial minion Caroline Flint had announced the Government’s shortlist for 10 entire eco-towns.

By any measure, eco-towns up the ante. Not only must developers and planners, architects and builders, housing associations and local authorities work together to create sustainable communities where people want to live and work, they must also create the very model of environmental living.

The buzzwords are many and familiar: ‘sustainable’, ‘zero carbon’, ‘affordable housing’, ‘innovative’ and so on. Flint’s shortlist contained 15 locations, which will compete to put the most flesh on the eco-buzzwords, in the hope of winning through to become one of the 10 finalists. Before that decision arrives, however, they will need to run a hurdle of public consultation, local authority planning scrutiny, and the stern appraisal of Flint’s panel of experts.

Between them, the eco-towns will provide around 100,000 new homes, with 30 per cent of those labelled ‘affordable’ for people on lower incomes. Each settlement will consist of between 5,000 and 20,000 homes and go towards reaching the national jackpot of three million new homes by 2020, including infrastructure to make them real settlements and not just barren dormitories. Or so the theory goes.

None of this is about ego - no, really - but a concerted drive to meet the twin challenges of climate change while ensuring an adequate supply of houses. These will be the first new towns built from scratch since the 1960s, which in a roundabout way brings us to Blears’ jibe at the Prince of Wales and his Poundbury development.

Presenting a speech to the Fabian Society, she lauded the garden-suburb movement of old: “I personally have more time for this ideal for urban living than I do for the utopias built for the workers by industrialists such as Saltaire, Bourneville, or Port Sunlight, which I have always felt owed more to paternalism and the aggrandisement of the benefactor, than real concern for residents. And you couldn’t get a drink!”

It’s worth noting, of course, that over the last 10 years, the Government has gained something of a reputation for a paternalistic streak of its own. Certainly, it has come in for such criticism in the past over aspects of its housing policy, as Blears’ predecessor Ruth Kelly once acknowledged in a speech to the Fabians.

“If I were being cheeky, I might add Poundbury to the list,” Blears added. In an equally cheeky vein, it might be said that prime minister Brown is himself famously austere on the matter of drink, as middle class wine drinkers and the brewing industry are learning to their cost. While not a temperance advocate as was the textile baron Titus Salt, Brown’s concern over the moral well-being of modern Britons does appear to echo that of the 19th century industrialist’s views on the well-being of his workforce.

By the standards of the day, he was a philanthropist, building the model village of Saltaire to rescue them from the slums that typified the era, but there was nothing utopian about the community he built for his mill workers. Quite the opposite, one might say, given that by today’s standards it was also something of a personal fiefdom-come-tyranny where practically every aspect of the workers’ lives was controlled.

Famously, there were no pubs in the village. Salt wanted to protect his employees from the evils of drink for both their physical and spiritual well-being - and doubtless ensure they worked more efficiently “down t’ mill”. This was one of a raft of rules, postered across the village and the mill, in a manner almost reminiscent of 20th Century totalitarian systems, though he forewent the portraiture.

By the same measure, he clearly wanted to protect his workforce from the ‘evils’ of socialism and trade unionism, for there were limits placed on the number of people who could gather. Perhaps in modern parlance, this could be regarded as a measure to protect against anti-social behaviour; others might perceive an infringement of the right to free assembly. Well, this was the 19th Century - the rights of freeborn Englishmen hadn’t quite trickled down to the working classes.

So where does all of this fit in with the Government’s eco-town proposals? Hopefully nowhere. However, the increasing use of new local authority powers to levy on the spot fines for, say, littering, points to the potential for life in eco-towns to be hideously regulated from on high. It has already been mooted that the new towns will be built to discourage car-use. Furthermore, cars will be limited to 15mph speed limits.

High standards of design, planning and construction are expected of these new urban enclaves to achieve the desired outcomes. So, can the lofty goals of these brave new eco-towns be realised on the basis of physical environment alone, or must the future inhabitants be corralled by regulation and by-law - to protect themselves and the environment from human fallibility? The utopia of the few is often the dystopia of the many.

Though the eco-towns were warmly welcomed by the TCPA, and in a qualified manner by the CPRE, overall the welcome has been somewhat lukewarm, where they haven’t provoked outright hostility such as among the residents living nearby.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has warned of the dangers of creating “soulless Stepford Wives suburbia” if the new eco-towns aren’t linked up effectively with existing communities. Less colourfully, but in the same vein, this concern was echoed by RICS which warned there was a risk of creating ‘isolated pockets of housing’ that will undermine any environmental benefits by forcing a reliance on cars.

“The Government’s eco-town proposals may well provide an environment where new technology and designs can be road-tested on a large scale, however we must keep our eye on the bigger picture,” said Stewart Baseley, chairman of the Home Builders Federation (HBF). “Even if all the shortlisted locations were developed, the homes built would only comprise less than five per cent of the three million homes we need to build by 2020. Local planning authorities and central government must avoid the danger of eco-towns becoming an expensive distraction from the core need to provide the right number of homes in the right places.”

The Federation of Master Builders went further, calling the whole eco-town premise a “red herring”. “Building brand new eco-towns outside existing settlements is a really bad idea when there are over 650,000 empty homes in England alone, all ripe for re-fitting with green technologies,” said spokesman Brian Berry. “If the Government is really serious about sustainable settlements the better solution would be to develop a patchwork of hundreds of smaller eco-projects, but the Government seems to think it always knows best.”

Knowing best is a hallmark of the kind of nineteenth century philanthropy Blears derided in her Fabian speech, which rather brings things back full circle. She might have decried utopianism, but on the scales of self-aggrandisement then old man Salt, or Prince Charles for that matter, are surely both dwarfed by the scale of the Government’s own self-aggrandising ‘ego-towns’.

First published in Northern Housing magazine, circa April 2008. It was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 20 May 2008.

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