Saturday, 28 June 2008

Eco-towns: Britain's brave new worlds?


By Neil Tweedie


On Monday, the initial public consultation on 'eco-towns' ends. However, opposition to them is just getting started, reports Neil Tweedie

Middle Quinton lies in the very heart of England. Six miles to the north, over rolling Warwickshire fields, lies Shakespeare's Stratford.

  • Residents protest at plans for a 15,000-home new town near Bicester
  • Residents protest at plans for a 15,000-home new town near Bicester

    To the south, 10 miles away, is the Cotswold market town of Chipping Campden. Meon Hill, a northerly outpost of the Cotswolds, the site of an Iron Age fort and in local legend a gathering place for witches, dominates the surrounding countryside.

    Middle Quinton: how quaint, how timeless, how comforting in its sound. A typical English village - the subject of an entry in the Domesday Book, no doubt. Except that it isn't any of these things.

    Middle Quinton doesn't exist yet; and if it ever does, it won't be a village, but a town of 6,000 homes and 14,000 people. An "eco-town" in fact, one of 10 or so planned by the Government as a very limited, but potentially very unpopular, solution to Britain's housing problem.

    By 2010, the earth-movers could be at work in this tranquil corner of England, making way for the builders. Give it 15 years or so and there will be Middle Quinton, with its three primary schools and one secondary school, its clinic and its shops. And the environment will notice hardly a thing.

    The homes will be "zero carbon", meaning that they will incorporate the latest energy-saving features, while the rubbish produced by their inhabitants will be turned into fuel.

    Happy, healthy, ecologically sound Middle Quintonians will cycle everywhere, or take the bus or tram or train (the developers aren't quite sure which) whenever they desire to leave their fledgling town and explore Stratford-upon-Avon, or the rest of the outside world.

    What they won't do is drive, because cars will be strongly discouraged in Middle Quinton, despite its isolation.

    To Jeffery Dench, Shakespearean actor, brother to Dame Judi, a local resident for 36 years and a vehement critic of the project, all this is just "crap". "People come here to see our lovely countryside. They don't want to see a f----ing eco-town," says Mr Dench, 79 and a keen proponent of earthy English. "They are going to stick 6,000 houses in a place served by two B-roads, with no existing rail link to the nearest real town. And they pretend that all those families won't use their cars.

    "I'm all for green this and green that, but please, please leave a bit of Old England as it once looked."

    On Monday, the first phase of public consultation on eco-towns ends. This may come as a surprise - not least to those who didn't know it had started. The eco-town issue has not yet ignited fully as a political issue, but it will.

    Potential eco-town sites

    The Government believes that Britain needs three million new homes by 2020. People are living longer, divorcing more and choosing to live alone. A liberal policy on immigration has raised the population to maybe 63 million (no one really knows) and added to the burden on housing stock, much of which is in the wrong place.

    Despite talk of a housing shortage, there are 840,000 empty houses in the country, but many of them are in old industrial towns in the north, where demand is low thanks to lack of jobs.

    The 120,000 homes in the 10 or more eco-towns will comprise only a fraction of the homes needed, but their political impact will be disproportionate. Twelve of the 15 sites shortlisted by the Government are deep in Tory constituencies.

    The Countryside Alliance believes that eco-towns are being pushed on to rural communities with little opportunity for debate.

    "In a year, the Government has gone from announcing the proposal to build 10 eco-towns, to shortlisting 15 schemes," says Sarah Lee, the Alliance's head of policy. "This has been achieved at breakneck speed when you consider how long it takes for the average householder to get planning permission for a simple extension to their home.

    "Communities are rightly concerned that these eco-towns will be fast-tracked through the planning process with little opportunity for their voices to be heard. The Government has stated that eco-town proposals will be subject to the local planning process, but to date has failed to explain how this will work."

    The 10 certain "victims" should be known by November. So-called brownfield sites might take a million new homes, but two thirds will have to be built on greenfield sites.

    The bucolically named Middle Quinton is actually a brownfield site: a former military base, like a number of other proposed sites.

    Taken over by the Royal Engineers in the Second World War, it contains a large railhead, which still takes freight. But the link goes south, not north to Stratford, where all the shops and restaurants are. A new link will have to be built, but of what kind no one is exactly sure.

    The Army pulled out in 1990 and the Ministry of Defence sold the 600-acre site in 2004. Much of it is green, rather than brown, populated by trees surrounding the old Army buildings. But there are also large warehouses which are anything but attractive. Opponents of Middle Quinton don't pretend the site is pure English countryside, but point out that the Army was an unobtrusive neighbour.

    The buyers of the site were two private companies, St Modwen and Bird Group, which can expect a handsome return on their investment if the project is approved. Peter Robbins, of Birmingham-based St Modwen, says public reaction to Middle Quinton is "50-50". "Some of those who attended the consultation exhibitions were quite excited," he says, describing people like Mr Dench as a "vocal minority": "There are 2,000-odd families waiting for affordable housing in the Stratford area."

    Of course, the majority of homes will be no such thing if you are truly strapped for cash. Many will be four- or five-bedroom properties: Middle Quinton might alternatively be described as an execo-town. But what about the transport links? "The B-roads are downgraded A-roads and we are looking at reopening the link to Stratford. It could be train, tram or bus."

    People, says Mr Robbins, will have to get used to public transport, and not only in Middle Quinton, because of the oil price and pressure from central government. The eco-town would be self-sustaining, including places of work and leisure, reducing the need to travel. That may be just as well. If county and district councils remain hostile to the building of Middle Quinton, they will be unlikely to pay for its transport links.

    Myles Pollock - like Mr Dench, a member of Bard - the group founded to oppose the new town, is scathing about the developers' assumptions. "So, the first families arrive in, say, 2012, and there's no school built. Where are the children going to go? And how are they going to get there?

    By car, of course. They talk about taking the household waste through tunnels and burning it with plasma technology to produce the town's energy. You'd need to import waste to fuel a thing like that - the town itself would produce only 10,000 tons of waste a year."

    Despite these assurances, the idea that a town of 14,000 can be built in a quiet area and almost not be noticed is fanciful. But Mr Dench fears that, with Gordon Brown's backing, Middle Quinton may come to pass. And what does his younger sister think of it. "Judi? Oh, she loves Stratford, loves the views as she approaches it. She's appalled."

    There will doubtless be more appalled faces in the shires when the final shortlist is announced in the autumn. In the end, those whose tranquillity is threatened are unlikely to see eco-towns as anything other than glorified housing estates.

    But it won't stop Gordon Brown and his ministers spinning them as the solution to the nation's housing and environmental needs - until the concrete cows come home.

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