Britain's ecotown program runs into NIMBY

Four sites in England were announced Thursday to create new 'green' towns. But locals are seeing red.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

LONDON – Tempted by the thought of swapping life in a polluted city for a fresh start in a new town built from scratch with the latest "green" technology, from solar power to subterranean recycling chutes?

In Britain, the dream is now closer than ever after the government announced the locations of the first four of its long-touted "ecotowns," a program designed to tackle both climate change and the housing shortage.

A soup-to-nuts green village may sound idyllic to city dwellers, but those already living in rural England are less enamored with the concept. The Monitor reported last summer on the launch of the program (and the mounting opposition).

The first new towns here since 1960 will be low-energy, carbon-neutral developments constructed with recycled materials. The four sites announced are Rackheath in Norfolk, North West Bicester in Oxfordshire, Whitehill Bordon in East Hampshire, and a new community near St. Austell in Cornwall. All are in southern and eastern England.

The towns are expected to include such features as charging stations for electric cars, parks, gardens, and playgrounds covering 40 percent of the town, homes within a 10-minute walk of public transportation, and smart (electric) meters in every home.

But while the towns are an integral part of the British government's popular "green revolution," they face stiff opposition from many local communities, who view them as concrete blights on rural areas.

Go green. But NIMBY

Some in the British media characterize the opposition as a class fight between lower-income families in need of housing and better-off, middle-class country dwellers with a "not in my backyard" attitude. In any case, the government's ecotowns are meeting fierce opposition in the form of protests and legal challenges.

John Healey, the housing minister, was upbeat Thursday when he unveiled the first four locations, claiming they would set the standard for every new town and community.

Nonsense, said his opposite number in the Conservative Party, Grant Shapps. "All the low-flush toilets in world can't make dumping a housing estate on green fields somehow eco-friendly," he said.

Tony Henman, who has led a campaign against the proposal for an ecotown near the Oxfordshire village of Weston-on-the-Green, was just relieved. His village is on a list of 15 short-listed sites for ecotowns.

"We have been fighting this for 21 months and it has taken a long time for the government to listen. A whole galaxy of reports have said this was a bad site for an ecotown," added Mr. Henman, who is still in the dark about whether the ecotown project will eventually get a go-ahead in his village.

A green-powered economic recovery?

For now, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's green revolution is powering ahead, and is helping to give his environmental credentials a much needed boost among the broader population.

In an oped in the Sunday Observer, he said the ecotowns were part of a larger effort to put Britain on the cutting edge of green technology – a "new approach will underpin our push towards economic recovery - providing new growth, new jobs, new industries and new opportunities."

Mr. Brown wrote:

Just as the Victorians made Britain the first industrialised nation and reaped the rewards, so we can harvest the benefits of being among the first major developed countries to convert to a green economy. The transition is not something to be delayed because of the global recession; instead it is the driver of our recovery.

As visionary as that may sound, trouble may lie just around the corner.

Rackheath, one of the four sites chosen despite polls suggesting strong local opposition, lies close to a constituency where a by-election will be held next Thursday due to the resignation of a Labour Party MP. If all politics are local, then the nearby eco-town project could cost Brown's party a seat in Parliament.

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