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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.