Eco-towns? Bad idea!

Could Gordon Brown's eco-town plans combine the worst bits of his bias towards multi-national busine

Eco-villages – don’t they sound lovely? But, as tenders are requested to build the first two of five eco-villages to act as pilot projects for Gordon Brown’s plan to build five new ‘eco-towns’, I’m afraid I’m going to have to come out against them.

This probably comes as a bit of surprise – how can I be against anything with the prefix ‘eco’? I will explain.

Firstly, there is absolutely no need for any more flippin’ pilot projects for how to create sustainable homes. Amory Lovins built his pioneering eco-home in Colorado in 1984, and the BedZed affordable eco-homes development in South London has been a shining example to the UK housebuilding industry since 2002.

Kirklees Borough Council in Yorkshire has been quietly creating a ‘renewable energy theme park’ for years, combining new-build with retrofitted green technology to create low carbon rented homes, schools and retirement homes that are now dotted across Huddersfield. We know how to do this now – we really do.

Secondly, building brand new ‘eco-towns’ outside existing towns and cities is a really bad idea. When there are 700,000 homes in England alone sitting empty, all ripe for refitting with green technologies (and far more brownfield sites in towns than councils are currently estimating) plonking a load of new houses out in the countryside, even if you do use ‘previously developed’ sites such as old military bases, is just wrong.

How green are these new towns going to be in transport terms? Is the government going to provide them with new railway lines? Of course not. Only a handful of miles of new railway have been built in the UK since privatisation. No, a new eco-town can only be another car-based satellite suburb. Even with car clubs, cycle lanes and a top-notch bus service, these places are going to be packed out with new roads and, as we all know, new roads lead to more car use – and more carbon emissions.

Will Brown’s eco-contractors really look at the whole way these new developments work? Or will they end up as sought-after, trendy developments whose residents, in practice, commute miles to work, shop in supermarkets and rarely walk or use the bus?

Finally, these pilot schemes sound suspiciously like precursors to another New Labour favourite for the next stage: big contracts with even bigger companies to build the eco-towns themselves. This approach would combine the worst bits of Brown’s bias towards multi-national business and his over-emphasis on centralised control, and is not the model we need if we want to see our nascent green industries grow into the mature, diverse, localised markets we need.

Handing out massive contracts like this not only discriminates against all the smaller, more innovative, green construction companies springing up around the country, but also leaves open the possibility of bad decisions multiplied on a grand scale meaning things go wrong in a big way too. Needless to say that eco-towns built with fatal flaws would seriously set back public confidence in, and the development of, green industries.

Not relying solely on one technology or one supplier is the essence of real sustainability. A far better model for this scheme would be a patchwork of hundreds of smaller eco-projects, with contracts awarded by local regions and communities for both new homes (in existing towns, near existing transport links) and refurbishment of old buildings, with green measures spread around a range of proven technologies.

I am sad to say all this. By instinct I want anything labelled ‘green’ to succeed but, despite the pretty eco-rhetoric, I just don’t have faith that this scheme will actually be good for the planet.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.