You’re the prime minister of a small, rich nation with a growing population, pressing space constraints, a chronic housing shortage, and a perennial need to be green. What do you do?
Gordon Brown thinks he has the answer. In one of his boldest policies since he assumed power last year, the British premier is planning to build a cluster of completely new ultramodern “ecotowns” on sites dotted around the English countryside.
Windmills and solar power, biomass heating facilities, car-free streets, and subterranean recycling chutes will result in net carbon dioxide emissions of zero or less.
But the innovative plan is pitting urbanites’ vision of green utopia against the ire of rural England, whose residents are loath to let their pristine environs be despoiled.
“This is completely the wrong site,” says Pete Seaward of Weston, a village in Oxfordshire shortlisted as an ecotown. He holds up a scenic picture of a local lake. “If they’re saying that it is ‘eco’ to build on and fill in a lake like that, they are dreaming.”
Ron Field, chairman of the parish council at Ford, another site on the eco-village shortlist, adds that there is huge local concern that this is just another ruse to allow developers to make money.
“We don’t want it because it’s plunked in the middle of a small hamlet in between two coastal towns which they spent millions and millions of pounds trying to regenerate,” he says.
“They’re building it on 600 acres of green field land which is used for growing food crops to feed the people that live in our area, and it’s all done as far as we can see for money.”
Aimed at meeting housing shortage
But such thinking ignores an important motivation for the project – Britain’s acute housing shortage – says Kate Henderson of the Town and Country Planning Association think tank in London, which advised the government on the ecotown strategy. In many cases, she points out, the vocal opponents are rural “haves” who do not understand the predicament of the urban “have-nots.”
“Those in the countryside who are fortunate enough to have a garden and green space for their children are the voices you hear the most,” she says, “whereas the massive majority are not able to get on the housing ladder, are living with their parents, are living in poor rented accommodations and are not able to access the housing market.”
Brown’s plan is aimed at addressing acute population and housing problems in Europe’s most densely populated country. Britain not only has a population that is growing once again; it has more and more single-occupancy households. House prices have soared in the past decade, and though the market is currently falling, prices are still well beyond the affordability of the majority of first-time buyers.
“There is a fundamental mismatch between supply and demand in the housing market and the government is committed to addressing this in the long term by building more homes,” said a government spokesman.
May lack social ‘glue’
The ecovillages will be the first towns built in Britain in 40 years – part of an overall strategy to build 3 million new homes in Britain by 2020. A final list of up to 10 sites are to be selected by 2009.
At least 30 percent of ecotown housing must be offered at “affordable” prices. Ecotowns must have at least 5,000 homes. Anything less, planners say, and it’s hard to sustain schools – the glue of any self-sustaining community.
The lack of such glue, particularly in the initial few years of an ecotown, is a major concern. Members of Parliament (MP) opposed to such developments say they will situate people in remote areas divorced from their place of work, meaning commuter miles will shoot up – hardly very “eco.”
They warn that communities will take years to become self-sustaining, as developers build the houses first but take much longer to add the schools, shops, and other infrastructure that binds a town together.
And they warn that legal challenges based on the argument that eco-towns have ridden roughshod over planning law will mount up, slamming the brakes on the schemes.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Conservative MP for a constituency shortlisted for an ecotown, says that the developments should instead be “bolted on to a big city,” as in the case of a pioneering German prototype on the outskirts of Freiburg. That way, he argues, you situate people closer to employment, facilities and – crucially – public transport.
“You get all the facilities of a big city – a university, hospital, and, what’s more, you get a better community bolted on to a big city because all of their friends and relatives are nearby,” he says.
Not everyone is opposed to the idea, however. A recent government survey found people supported ecotowns by a majority of 5 to 1, though that fell to 2 to 1 when people were asked if they’d like one on their own doorstep. Friends of the Earth said eco-towns “could provide an inspiring blueprint for low-carbon living.”
High environmental standards
The developments must live up to the highest environmental standards. Housing must be carbon-neutral, with windmills and solar power providing energy.
Most ecotowns say they aspire to be “car-free,” settlements in which personal vehicles are parked on the outskirts and regular buses or trams shuttle people in to their homes.
Developments must make use of the latest efficient heating systems such as combined heat and power plants, or biomass.
One shortlisted development, at Whitehill-Bordon in southern England, claims that more than 70 percent of locals support it. But council chief executive Will Godfrey admits this is because the ecotown would be different from other projects as it would regenerate an existing town rather than build afresh on unspoiled countryside.
“You have to have a commitment to develop a town, not just build houses,” he says, adding that business must be drawn into the new town to make it self-sustaining. “At the moment, 70 percent of people commute out of the town,” he adds. “We want to create a place where people can live, work, and play in the town in which they reside.”
Conservative MP Peter Luff thinks that is fanciful. “This is an idea that will bring disaster to the people who live there because they’ll be miserably locked in these so-called ecocommunities miles from anything they actually want,” he says. “My view is that one or two should be built as pilot projects, and then see what lessons can be learned.”