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.