Eco-towns: a parable of a wet and wimpy state

Eco-towns, we were told, would help to ‘save the planet’ and provide thousands of new homes. Tim Black investigates why they were never built.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Eco-towns – remember them? For a while they were a flagship New Labour project. Then they became a flagging New Labour project. And now? ‘As it stands, it’s up to the local authorities whether they get built’, came the rather non-committal response (1) from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

Not that this should have been a surprise. The Lib-Con government, Localism Bill or not, seems very keen to wash its hands of this particular New Labour initiative, as indicated by its July announcement that the £60million funding for the shortlisted sites was to be cut in half. So while it is still possible that three new towns-cum-villages will be built – at Bicester in Oxfordshire, St Austell in Cornwall and Elsenham in Essex – it is fair to say the project that was once to provide around 200,000 new homes, not to mention several new towns, is, to all intents and purposes, defunct.

How things have changed. The willingness with which the eco-towns scheme is being quietly abandoned is in marked contrast to the fanfare with which it was announced in the summer of 2007. Back then, Gordon Brown, all affected smiles in his new position as prime minister, saw fit to make eco-towns his first major policy announcement. It was meant to be big. It had to be green. And it was going to define Brown’s prime-ministerial vision. Speaking to the Labour Party conference that September, Brown declaimed: ‘For the first time in nearly half a century we will show the imagination to build new towns – eco-towns with low and zero carbon homes.’ So it was that in the summer of 2007 a mixture of local authorities, construction firms and developers were invited to come forward with their plans for these new, ecologically sound towns.

And come forward they did. By April 2008, a shortlist of 15 prospective eco-towns had been unveiled. Then housing minister Caroline Flint continued to hype up the importance of the scheme: ‘We have a housing shortage in this country, and that’s why we need to build more homes. But we also need to think about sustainable homes in sustainable communities.’ The following January, the shortlist had been whittled down to 12. Then, in July 2009, four eco-towns were given the go-ahead (Rackheath in Norfolk, Whitehill Bordon in East Hampshire, Bicester in Oxfordshire and the China Clay community scheme in St Austell), with the promise of more to come.

Speaking in February last year, then Labour housing minister John Healy seemed confident enough: ‘This is the start of the country’s biggest ever eco-home building programme’, he announced. Party political PR can be deceptive, however. In truth, the enthusiasm which had accompanied the launch of the eco-towns project was no longer there. So when Healy’s Lib-Con successor Grant Shapps slashed the public funding for the scheme last summer, it was hardly a surprise. Whatever determination there was within central government to see the scheme through had long since left the building. As it stands, two, perhaps three eco-towns of sorts might eventually be built. But there will not be 10, and they will not provide 200,000 new houses.

So what happened to the eco-towns project? After all, this was meant to be a massively important scheme. Not only was it to show off the government’s commitment to a low-carbon future, it was to demonstrate how best to address the UK’s chronic housing shortage, something Brown had acknowledged in 2007 with his pledge to build three million homes by 2020. As he stated in July 2009, ‘eco-towns will help to relieve the shortage of affordable homes to rent and buy and to minimise the effects of climate change on a major scale’. The original 2007 eco-towns prospectus even went so far as to draw parallels between the situation today and that faced by the ‘postwar generation 60 years ago’ – that is, when the original 11 ‘new towns’ were built. So why, given the much-trumpeted historic urgency of the task, has so little come to pass?

The easy answer would be to blame the recession. Certainly, it was following the financial crash in September 2008 that negative stories about the economic viability of eco-towns started to appear. Up until then, press coverage had been both constant and consistent, recycling the latest government press release alongside ‘not in my back yard’-style objections. But in autumn 2008, the coverage shifted tack. In October, for instance, ‘a source’ at the DCLG told the Guardian that ‘only one or two’ eco-towns were expected to be built. And then a few weeks later, then housing minister Margaret Beckett admitted to the same paper that Brown’s commitment to build 10 eco-towns ‘is more in hope than expectation’.

But that’s too easy an explanation. As James Stevens from the Home Builders Federation told spiked, ‘eco-towns were failing before the financial crisis’. The ostensible problem was that the private sector developers had little to gain from building eco-towns. Given that most of the funding for the eco-towns was meant to come from the private, not the public sector, this was a significant problem. What is more, it was a problem largely of the state’s own making.

When the scheme was first launched, the criteria for its ecological correctness were already quite strict. According to the initial 2007 prospectus, eco-towns were to be zero-carbon communities demonstrating excellence in one ‘particular aspect of environmental sustainability’, from drainage to technology. As for the actual houses, they were to be built to ‘at least’ code level 3 (out of 6) as laid out in the 2006 housing regulations. This meant that their carbon emissions would be 25 per cent lower than what was then the current standard.

All this was restrictive enough for prospective developers – not to mention for those, cycle in hands, who would have to live in these ‘exemplars of sustainability’. But the problem was that having made these new towns ‘eco’, it meant that critics quickly held the plans to account on the basis that they weren’t ‘eco’ enough. In February 2008, for instance, historian and commentator Tristram Hunt (now a Labour MP) called the eco-towns project a ‘smokescreeen’ for unscrupulous developers. ‘All too predictably’, he wrote, ‘Britain’s leading developers are using the eco-towns template to dust off long-rejected proposals and re-submit shoddy housing schemes’. In other words, if a project was being put forward by the private sector, it was automatically suspect on environmental grounds. Hunt’s was not a lone criticism; it was part of a ‘green-washing’ chorus. Eco-towns were not doing what they said on the tin, claimed an unholy trinity of planning experts, disgruntled locals and reluctant local authorities.

The government’s response was to play to the eco-elite gallery and make the eco-town requirements ever stricter. Developers now had to build the houses to code level 4 and, from 2016, to code level 6. As then housing minister Caroline Flint said in July 2008: ‘These would be the toughest standards ever set out for new development, and would demonstrate that there will be no compromise on quality when it comes to eco-towns.’ This may have been music to the ears of green-horned critics of the scheme, but as Stevens explained to me, it is ‘extremely difficult to build to a high code level, especially as regards energy efficiency and water, and still make a sufficiently attractive return on investment – something that is necessary to allow the development to go ahead.’ He added: ‘This is one of the reasons why the three survivors of the eco-towns programme are progressing so slowly.’

More off-putting still was the one thing that initially made eco-towns potentially attractive to the private sector – that is, the extent to which the existing, notoriously bureaucratic planning regulations would be relaxed. And in the 2007 prospectus, there is more than a hint that the government was prepared to circumvent the planning process. Given that even if you own the land you want to build on, planning permission can usually only be obtained after endless, not to mention costly, private and public consultations with local planning authorities, the chance to skip over this would certainly have been appealing to developers. So to hear the DCLG actually talk of ‘minimising delay’, of dealing with the proposals quickly and, more explicitly, of using ‘the powers in the New Towns Act 1981 [where] appropriate’, actually made it sound as if the government was serious about a large-scale development project.

This is certainly what planning consultant David Lock believed. And considering that Lock was not only the former head of the Town and Country Planning Association, but, in its early stages, an official adviser on the eco-towns project, he should know. ‘When the government first launched the scheme’, Lock tells me, ‘their initial documents implied that they were in a hurry and were willing to alter the planning procedures to let people get ahead’.

But once again, just as with the eco-town building regulations, the government caved in, this time under pressure from lobby groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England and a few ‘sad middle-aged people holding up a “eco-towns will destroy my life” poster on a village green somewhere in the Midlands’. Very quickly, Lock tells me, the government’s ‘proactive, “we’ll bend the system” approach’ to planning permission was abandoned. Lock is in no doubt that this reversal, following ‘a bit of negative publicity’, put off prospective developers. ‘The government was making [eco-towns] an ordinary initiative that would have to go through existing processes, so why would anyone bother? A promoter can spend five years trying to push through other projects instead.’ And at considerably less cost, too.

In the ease with which the government tried to appease environmentalist critics, in the speed with which it went back on its promise to circumvent planning legislation with the New Towns Act, there is a parable of the contemporary state. ‘Wimpy and wet’, as Lock called the government, the state simply seems incapable of getting anything done. Even a scheme in which it invested so much political capital, such as the eco-towns project, quickly lost momentum. Lacking the popular support that comes through winning an argument, the government lacked the political will to realise its objectives. For new housing, read energy. For energy read transport. Before any large-scale infrastructural projects, the state proves cowardly and ultimately impotent.

Since Flint’s predecessor as housing minister, Yvette Cooper, was keen to invoke the situation faced by the postwar generation, it is worth recalling quite what the state, given a bit of political will, can achieve. Following the initial 1946 New Towns Act – the Act that Cooper hinted in the original eco-towns prospectus could be used once more – the state, via a set of development corporations, proceeded to build 28 new towns, including Stevenage, Basildon and, perhaps most famously, Milton Keynes. Whatever one thinks of these developments, the contrast between the state’s capacity for action and its current incapacity is striking. As Peter Hall and Colin Ward note: ‘In the half century after 1946, Britain built 28 New Towns with a combined population of 2,254,300 people at the 1991 census (or three per cent of the entire national population) as against only 945,900 at the start. Thus 1,308,400 people were housed in planned new communities; all with accompanying employment – some 1,110,000 jobs, against 453,000 at the start, a net increase of 646,600.’ (2)

Of course, when Lewis Silkin, the town and country planning minister in Clement Attlee’s postwar Labour government, was busy arguing for the New Towns Bill, he believed that lots of new housing – outside London – was really necessary. The eco-towns project, in contrast, seems to have defensiveness written into its title. Eco-towns weren’t just to provide new places for people to live, as the postwar New Towns had (despite the rather snobbish talk of urban sprawl) – they were also for the environment, too. Hence the eco-towns idea reads like an apology to nature for us having to build on it. Scepticism about elevating our needs over those of the planet is built into eco-towns. It was perhaps always a cowardly project for a weak state.

But the main point still stands. Faced with a chronic housing shortage, the state, regardless of stripe of government, seems incapable of doing anything about it. As it stands, housebuilding rates are set to dip to their lowest level since the 1920s. Yet, too cowed by adverse publicity, too weak to actually justify a major undertaking such as housebuilding or a new generation of nuclear power stations, the government is content to look as if it is doing something while achieving nothing. While the state is happy to preoccupy itself with our behaviour, nannying then, nudging now, it seems unable to provide its citizens with the things we might actually want.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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