I have been trying all week to work out exactly what an ‘eco-town’ is, and have finally come to the conclusion that the term is derived from Umberto Eco, the Italian professor of semiotics whose novels revolve around dark conspiracies. In fact, for his next work he may well care to investigate how New Labour’s cardinals came to designate 15 sites across England for vast new housing developments.
The process certainly doesn’t owe a lot to democracy. Let’s just take one of the ‘eco-towns’ announced last week. Twenty years ago developers put forward proposals for a new town on farmland outside Hinxton, just off the A11 ten miles south of Cambridge. The proposal went through the normal planning process and was rejected by Cambridgeshire’s planners as being an unsuitable site: not being attached to any existing town, it would simply become a commuter dormitory.
Ten years ago the government decided that it no longer trusted Conservative-dominated councils to allocate sites for new housing, fearing that the Nimby tendency was thwarting the expansion of the nation’s housing stock. To that end it set up regional assemblies, made up of councillors, business leaders, quangocrats, trade union leaders and assorted worthies to influence planning decisions over a much wider area. Cambridgeshire, for example, came under the East of England Regional Assembly, an unelected body of 105 members which met in Bury St Edmunds four times a year. Part of its job was to come up with a regional plan to decide, among other things, where the 478,000 dwellings which the government wants to be built in the east of England over the next 20 years should go.
In 2005, the regional assembly carried out a Regional Spatial Strategy which analysed several dozen proposed sites for new housing developments, involving a long consultation process with businesses and residents. Among the sites considered was ‘Hinxton Grange’, which had been proposed by a developer called Jarrow Investments, later revealed to be a front for Tesco. The proposal came low down the list of preferred sites, thanks to its location on greenfield land and the lack of public transport. Instead, the Assembly recommended that new housing development be concentrated on the site of an old airfield and barracks at Longstanton, to the north-east of Cambridge, which would be connected to the city via a new guided busway.
A dispassionate observer might well conclude that this was Labour’s ‘stakeholder society’ functioning in exactly the way it was intended to. But it appears that the stakeholder society is just a little too democratic for Gordon Brown. In one of his first speeches after becoming Prime Minister last July, he announced that national housebuilding targets would be increased to provide three million new homes by 2020. In order to soften the blow, he said that some of these would be provided in a series of new ‘eco-towns’ in which all buildings would, over the course of a year, produce no net carbon emissions. What he didn’t make clear at the time was that the government itself would choose where these eco-towns would go.
Developers were invited to submit bids — which in the event 57 did, a large number of them dusted-down proposals which had previously been rejected by planners. From these, housing minister Caroline Flint picked a shortlist of 15. Among them was Hinxton Grange, now rebranded Hanley Grange but otherwise remarkably similar to the scheme which had already been rejected.
Planners, unsurprisingly, were furious. Sir David Trippier is chairman of Cambridgeshire Horizons, a not-for-profit company set up by local authorities in Cambridgeshire to oversee the Northstowe development and other large housing projects in the county. ‘This appears to bypass the local and regional planning process and we will oppose it vigorously,’ he says. ‘There is an absence of high quality public transport at Hanley Grange. The Cambridge to London railway line would have to be accessed by road, and the proximity of the A11 and M11 would make the development highly susceptible to car-based commuting.’
So how do the revised plans for Hanley Grange suddenly make it an eco-town, when it had already been rejected for housing development on environmental grounds? ‘There is going to be a sophisticated bus network with hopper buses and longer-distance buses,’ says Bob Selwood, the planning consultant employed by Jarrow Investments. ‘No one will be more than 400 metres from a bus stop.’ But how is he going to persuade residents of this town to jump on the buses when there are already so many buses running empty around the district? ‘You can’t make people. We’re not a Stalinist society,’ he says. Indeed not, which is why you can be sure that if Hanley Grange ever gets built there will be a long queue of cars every morning getting on to the M11 to commute to London or Cambridge.
An eco-town, according to the government, must be ‘carbon-neutral’, which it says means that over the course of a year the buildings between them must generate as much renewable energy as they consume carbon energy. There is no requirement, on the other hand, for transport to be carbon-neutral, so there is no need to fuel your 4×4 on carrot-peelings. Nor does all the renewable energy have to be generated on-site, so long as all sources are connected to the development ‘via a private wire’.
This is a rather interesting get-out clause, because it would allow the developer of an eco-town to build a wind farm several miles away, allowing those who live at the eco-town to earn the environmental brownie points but others to suffer the consequences. When pressed for details as to how Hanley Grange would generate its renewable energy, Bob Selwood admitted at this stage that they were a little lacking. ‘We’ve done sufficient work to convince ourselves that it is likely to be achievable,’ he tells me. Remarkably, promoters of the eco-towns chosen by the government do not seem to have had to convince anyone else that they have worked out the technology required to make a town of 8,000 houses carbon-neutral — they have been allowed leave to solve that small problem at a later date. All Bob Selwood could tell me is that Hanley Grange would use a variety of sources of energy, including turbines, solar panels and a ‘biomass plant’ using locally grown saplings.
I am not entirely sure where the saplings are going to come from, especially considering Cambridgeshire is Britain’s most treeless county. What was claimed to be Britain’s first zero-carbon housing estate — the BedZED development in south London, completed in 2002 — incorporated a biomass plant, but that has only 82 properties and was designed to gobble up tree-trimmings from all over the borough of Merton. Moreover, the plant failed and the development now has to draw all its electricity from the national grid.
Of course, new housing developments should use whatever technology is available to minimise their use of energy and impact on the environment. But there is little to suggest to me that Gordon Brown’s eco-towns are yet fully baked — they are more a device to help him get his housing estates built with the minimum of local opposition.
There is just the one detail at Hanley Grange which definitely has been worked out so far. According to Bob Selwood, the town will include one large supermarket. And the company who will be taking it on? ‘Tesco has a contractual arrangement with the developers and I’m sure there is an aspiration for it to have a supermarket.’