Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, has been outlining his vision for the UK's greener future with a raft of policies aimed at reducing the UK's carbon emissions over the coming years. While these policies may appear at first sight to be innovative and environmentally sound, like many of Brown's policies, when looked at more closely, they lack any real substance and rarely have the potential to achieve their stated aims. The latest of these green policies to come under closer scrutiny and be found lacking is the plan to build new ‘eco-towns' around the country. There are 15 proposed sites short-listed, with 10 set to get the go-ahead from the government. Each new town will consist of between 5,000 and 20,000 homes and will form self-contained communities with their own schools, shops, medical facilities and businesses.
The government's stated aim is to build new, environmentally friendly towns that would meet the needs of the UK's growing population while helping to reduce the UK's carbon emissions. That is the rationale the government has used to push forward their policy. The reality though, may be a little different. The government has been pushing local authorities for a number of years to build more houses and to allow developers to build more houses in their boroughs, especially in the countryside in the counties around London and the South-East. This policy proved unpopular with the local people and environmentalists alike. There is precious little green land left in the UK and there was resistance to this land being converted to massive housing estates. Hence the birth of the ‘eco-town' policy, a way of building extra housing by making it difficult to campaign against - who would want to fight against sustainable and environmentally friendly housing?
The problem the government is facing, is that a panel they set up (The Challenge Group) to report on the new ‘eco-towns' has questioned the environmental value of these proposed developments. The group was tasked with reviewing the developers' proposals and making recommendations where applicable to enhance the environmental qualities of each proposal. The panel looked at a number of areas such as proximity to public transport, ensuring house designs are energy efficient and use renewable energy sources, the impact on the local environment and wild-life, and the use of new and innovative technologies along with other factors that go to make up zero-carbon communities that promote green living and working.
John Walker, chairman of the Eco-towns Challenge Panel, said: "Our brief was to challenge each proposal in a robust and constructive way, and I think we have done a good job on that front. We have seen much to admire, but in all cases we are challenging the developers to take major steps forward. We want the final eco-towns to be better than the best of the current examples that do exist in the UK and the rest of Europe - clearly there is still a lot of work to do." - Planning Daily
A summary of the report addressing all of the proposed sites is available on the UK government's website (pdf). The summary runs to 145 pages but it is worth reviewing. Reading through the summary, it quickly becomes apparent how little thought the government has put into the ‘eco-town' process. Around 10 of the proposed sites fail to meet the government's own environmental and sustainability criteria.
The government has already put in place targets that will require houses built after 2016 to reach a sustainability rating of level six, which effectively means they will be carbon neutral. According to The Telegraph, the ‘eco-towns' only have to meet level three, which requires them to be 25% more efficient than existing housing standards. This means that when the ‘eco-towns' are completed around 2020, ordinary houses built at the same time will be 75% more energy efficient. Some of the proposed sites require a car to access public transport, some will be built on green belt land. The ‘eco-towns' are basically not ‘eco' at all, which begs the question why are they being promoted by the government? Well, one factor could be that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has sold hundreds of acres of disused military land to developers over the last few years. The sales were concluded with a ‘claw-back' clause, allowing the MOD to get more money from the developers should the value of the land increase. Coincidentally, some of these proposed sites are to be built on ex-MOD land, which would net the government around £275 million from the developers. So the government gets to build the thousands of new homes it says we need and makes money in the process. It's a win-win situation for the government, but a loss for the environment.