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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage