Eco towns – the zero evidence footprint

Reform’s briefing note on eco towns strongly recommends that the Government provide full costings and examine alternatives to the eco towns proposal. There are serious issues to be addressed with current plans:

the focus on 0.4 per cent of the total housing stock, rather than the 99 per cent of houses that are already built;

the true carbon neutrality of eco towns, given that many proposed locations are a considerable distance from work and amenities;

the opportunity cost of further building in the countryside, for both the natural environment and agriculture;

specific development problems at the proposed sites, many of which are former military installations, deliberately sited in remote and unsociable locations; and

lack of evidence on the total cost of these settlements, including infrastructure.

Eco towns -the zero evidence footprint

The eco town plans have been provided as one part of the answer to addressing climate change and housing need. However the Government has not presented any estimates of the costs of the programme; nor does there seem to have been any in-depth consideration of alternative approaches.

On the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from residential properties, it would seem logical to put the majority of focus on the 99 per cent, or 26.4 million, dwellings that are already built. The 120,000 eco houses planned at the moment represent just 0.4 per cent of the total housing stock. There is a greatly disproportionate focus on a very few houses.

On their own terms, the eco towns are ostensibly carbon neutral. However if they are located in hard to reach areas, residents will generate eco-cost getting to and from amenities and workplaces. Eco-development should take into account the overall lives of residents; how they travel to work and use local amenities not just the living accommodation.

The most eco friendly locations would appear to be those already attached to conurbations. This is where there is little marginal cost in infrastructure and carbon terms for people to move around. Firstly, public transport and cycling make more economic sense in densely populated areas. Secondly there is lower energy loss from more tightly packed buildings. Third, countryside land is preserved. There is a high opportunity cost in using up land outside cities which can be important wildlife habitats or farming areas (something that is becoming more critical with global food shortages).

The most densely populated borough in the UK is Kensington and Chelsea; its mansion blocks and large town houses, many divided into flats, are space efficient, whilst attractive places to live. Lessons should be learnt from this and consideration should be given to remodelling sites along these lines using the latest materials, rather than encroaching on new space. A truly eco approach would reuse materials to create something new, maximising derelict sites and materials that are not currently being best utilised.

On the subject of housing need, the location of homes should follow economic imperatives of where work is available. Previous towns that have sprung up around mining or other now long gone industries are not going to provide the necessary work for the local population. Government is not necessarily best placed to determine where future demand for housing is going to be. Wrong decisions can lead to unsustainable communities.
The actual evidence on the eco town sites points to very high costs for developing infrastructure as well as many of the practical difficulties identified above. We present the questions first for the six larger schemes which between them account for 76,000 houses or 68 per cent of the 112,000 planned at present.

Pennbury, Leicestershire. This is a suburb of Leicester which is four miles away from the centre to be built in an area already affected by acute traffic congestion. Leicester has no southern ring road. It is some distance from any railways.

Bordon-Whitehill, Hampshire. A recent Hampshire County Council report commented that; “It is clear however that the provision of services has not kept pace with recent development. The nearest railway station is six miles away, public transport links are limited and the increased traffic volumes on the A325 only serve to sever the community. To further compound these fundamental problems, there is an inappropriate housing mix, including run-down properties, an absence of local Further Education facilities as well as limited leisure and retail facilities. To be more specific this translates to there being no local cinema or modern conference facilities for local businesses and no national chain of fashion retailers.” It is also on the edge of the proposed South Downs National Park and having such a substantial development so close hardly fits the proposed new drive for preserving the South Downs.

Weston Otmoor, Oxfordshire. A proposed settlement of 10-15,000; a sub-settlement of Bicester with all the costs likely from a green-field site.

Rossington, Yorkshire. This development has more local support than most but is on an old mining area which is very low lying and at severe risk of flooding. The costs of building over old mine workings are likely to be higher. There is no local infrastructure for a population of the size planned.

Hanley Grange, Cambridgeshire. This development is south of Cambridge when all elected local representatives had agreed that development should be north of Cambridge. It is an example of central government over-ruling responsible local government.

Marston Vale, Bedfordshire. This is very close to the Lottery/Millennium fund backed project for a forest described on its website as follows: “The Forest Centre is at the heart of the Forest of Marston Vale – a massive project planting a beautiful new forest between Bedford and Marston Vale where we will be able to relax, escape the pressures of the modern world for generations to come and we are breathing new life into a landscape damaged by years of brick-making.” The cost of building along old brick-works has proved prohibitive near Peterborough and may not be any lower here.

There are seven smaller projects (5-6,000 houses each); two in rather isolated situations as in Manby and Strubby, Lincolnshire and Coltishall, Norfolk. Coltishall is on the edge of the Norfolk Broads another frail eco system which is recovering from pollution and previous over development with very dedicated local action. The residents will need to travel 15 miles to Lincoln and eight miles to Norwich for most services. Imerys, near St Austell is in an area of old china clay workings. Ford, West Sussex would have road access only through the A27 in the Chichester-Arundel stretch which is one of the worst bottlenecks in the South East. It would also divert development away from Bognor Regis, a highly deprived area. Middle Quinton near Stratford is a highly isolated site in the landscape of Shakespeare. Elsenham in Essex is under the flight path for any expansion of Stansted. These are eco-estates not eco towns as they are not viable on their own. Lastly there are two locations which are in the list – Rushcliffe and Leeds City Region – where there are no specific locations chosen as yet.

These projects are being presented without any assessment of the overall cost. Once the infrastructure is counted in this it is likely to be very substantial. They are also being presented as zero-carbon when they will be heavily dependent on car transport for most services as well as for journeys to work.

The Housing Minister, Caroline Flint, has supported the plan on the grounds that existing towns cannot provide all the extra housing required but she has not presented any evidence for this statement. In fact existing cities and towns have done a remarkable job in housing one million migrants over the past decade. These people have been able to rent as a result of the deregulation of the market for rented housing.

We need a proper estimate of the opportunity cost of these developments. For the price of these eco towns it would be possible to develop many more dwellings in existing towns and cities. The opportunity cost of these 112,000 units could be as much as 200,000 units in existing settings.

These problems in the eco town concept point to the failures of a centrally planned approach.

If instead a framework was developed – such as personal carbon allowances/carbon tax and individuals were empowered to develop their own abodes – there would surely be a different outcome. Local knowledge and pride would see the reuse of obsolete materials and buildings, there are some great examples of this in the reuse of old mills in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Developments would be planned where there was demand. New innovative techniques would be developed and the private sector would have an incentive to provide householders with new solutions. It would also remove the false barrier between new and existing housing, so that all householders were in possession of the motivation to reduce their carbon footprint.

There are currently severe blockages to the development of brownfield sites such as VAT discrimination between new build and renovation and many industrial and distribution sites being frozen in their current uses by out-date planning principles.

Reform urges the Government to present a much more substantial case for the program, an estimate of the overall cost and to compare it with the alternatives. One alternative would be to provide incentives for all home owners to reduce their carbon footprint and for more intensive re-development in towns and cities. There need to be some realistic estimates of the opportunity cost rather than just wishful thinking of the conversion potential of old military sites and airfields that came into the public sector mainly for the reasons that they were a long way from any settled habitation.