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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If only I could wangle a job in the John Lewis menswear department I’d get to say, “Suits you, sir”

I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

So now that I have made the news public that I am even deeper in the soup than I was when I started this column, various people – in fact, a far greater number than I had dared hope would – have expressed their support. Most notable, as far as I can tell, was Philip Pullman’s. That was decent of him. But the good wishes of people less in the public eye are just as warming to the heart.

Meanwhile, the question is still nagging away at me: what are you going to do now? This was the question my mother’s sisters would always ask her when a show she was in closed, and my gig might have been running for almost as long as The Mousetrap but hitherto the parallels with entertainment had eluded me.

“That’s show business,” she said to me, and for some reason that, too, is a useful comment. (I once saw a picture of a fairly well-known writer for page and screen dressed up, for a fancy-dress party, as a hot dog. The caption ran: “What? And give up show business?”)

Anyway, the funds dwindle, although I am busy enough to find that time does not weigh too heavily on my hands. The problem is that this work has either already been paid for or else is some way off being paid for, if ever, and there is little fat in the bank account. So I am intrigued when word reaches me, via the Estranged Wife, that another family member, who perhaps would prefer not to be identified, suggests that I retrain as a member of the shopfloor staff in the menswear department of John Lewis.

At first I thought something had gone wrong with my hearing. But the E W continued. The person who had made the suggestion had gone on to say that I was fairly dapper, could talk posh, and had the bearing, when it suited me, of a gentleman.

I have now thought rather a lot about this idea and I must admit that it has enormous appeal. I can just see myself. “Not the checked jacket, sir. It does not become sir. May I suggest the heather-mixture with the faint red stripe?”

In the hallowed portals of Jean Louis (to be said in a French accent), as I have learned to call it, my silver locks would add an air of gravitas, instead of being a sign of superannuation, and an invitation to scorn. I would also get an enormous amount of amusement from saying “Walk this way” and “Suits you, sir”.

Then there are the considerable benefits of working for the John Lewis Partnership itself. There is the famed annual bonus; a pension; a discount after three months’ employment; paid holiday leave; et cetera, et cetera, not to mention the camaraderie of my fellow workers. I have worked too long alone, and spend too much time writing in bed, nude, surrounded by empty packets of Frazzles and Dinky Deckers. (For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, a Dinky Decker is a miniature version of a Double Decker, which comes in a bag, cunningly placed by the tills of Sainsbury’s Locals, which is usually priced at a very competitive £1.)

I do some research. I learn from an independent website that a retail sales assistant can expect to make £7.91 an hour on average. This is somewhat less than what is considered the living wage in London, but maybe this is accounted for in the John Lewis flagship store in Oxford Street. It is, though, a full 6p an hour more than the living wage in the rest of the land. Let the good times roll!

At which point a sudden panic assails me: what if employment at that store is only granted to those of long and proven service? God, they might send me out to Brent Cross or somewhere. I don’t think I could stand that. I remember when Brent Cross Shopping Centre opened and thought to myself, even as a child, that this was my idea of hell. (It still is, though my concept of hell has broadened to include Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush.)

But, alas, I fear this tempting change of career is not to be. For one thing, I am probably too old to train now. By the time I will have been taught to everyone’s satisfaction how to operate a till or measure an inside leg, I will be only a few months, if that, from retirement age, and I doubt that even so liberal an employer as John Lewis would be willing to invest in someone so close to the finish line.

Also, I have a nasty feeling that it’s not all heather-mixture suits with (or without) the faint red stripe these days. The public demands other, less tasteful apparel.

So I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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