Analysis: Were plans for eco-towns too ambitious?

Eco-towns may not solve housing shortages but will provide a precedent for sustainable living

Eco-towns: designs include flood management, nature areas and car-free transport. Image: Imerys
Eco-towns: designs include flood management, nature areas and car-free transport. Image: Imerys

After a blaze of publicity about the sustainable future of housing through the development of 10 eco-towns, the Government has been forced to largely rethink its ambitions.

Controversy, a lack of public support and disastrous reports from landscape, planning and architecture experts mean the 10 initially-planned eco-developments are now four.

Although the Government insists that local authorities broadly support the confirmed sites, there is likely to be a battle ahead to prove to sceptics that eco-towns can achieve their aims.

Last year's damning reports from the Government-appointed Eco-Towns Challenge Panel of 12 experts had warned that many of the initial proposed schemes looked like "typical commercial developments".

So it will be with interest that members of a new design review panel scrutinise the four chosen sites. Last week, CABE set up a dedicated eco-towns review panel, with the support of Communities and Local Government and the Homes and Communities Agency.

The panel will meet for the first time on 2 December to examine the proposals for the four designated eco-towns: Whitehill-Bordon in Hampshire; Rackheath in Norfolk; North-West Bicester in Oxfordshire; and St Austell in Cornwall.

Panel member and landscape architect Chris Baines tells HW he has already been meeting stakeholders across the eco-town sites and believes there is real dedication to the landscape.

"This is the first time in my working life when we have been talking about green space as the core, rather than a bolt-on," he explains. "But the element that will really distinguish the eco-towns is the multi-functionality of the landscape for flood management, nature conservations and car-free transport."

In July this year, the Government produced a planning policy statement specifically focused on eco-towns. Its primary aims are promoting sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint of development.

The policy statement stipulates that 40 per cent of eco-towns' total area should be allocated to green space, of which at least half should be public.

The space should be multifunctional: accessible for play and recreation; used for walking or cycling safely; support wildlife; and help urban cooling and flood management.

But GreenSpace chief executive Paul Bramhill says: "A management organisation, perhaps similar to the Milton Keynes Parks Trust, needs to be built into the planning process so there isn't the constant worry about diminishing budgets for green space."

Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) project sponsor for parklands and public ream John Hopkins says financial sustainability will be one of the key factors he looks for in his role on the design review panel.

"It is about the physical, financial and fiscal infrastructure," he explains. "Sustainability is as much about process as the product and one of the fundamental principles is connecting people to the environment. That is reliant on the landscape."

In planning the sites, designs must provide a "good quantity of green space of the highest quality in close proximity to the natural environment and offer opportunities for space within and around the dwellings", according to the policy document.

Landscape Institute policy committee member Ian Phillips says he is hopeful that there will be "real innovation" from the eco-towns.

However, shadow housing minister Grant Shapps makes no secret of the fact that he believes the eco-towns programme is a "shambles". In a parliamentary debate, he called on housing minister John Healey to admit that the "unpopular eco-town programme is a complete shambles" and scrap it.

The Government has already seriously scaled back the proposals. Originally in 2007 there were plans for five eco-towns, which was increased a few months later to 10. But with just four now deemed suitable to go ahead - and even those have been delayed until 2016 - the target of 10 eco-towns by 2020 appears to be defunct.

Phillips argues that the reduction in sites could prove a good thing, as it points to stringent standards.

The towns will hardly make a dent on housing shortfall of three million homes, but their success will be important as pilots for more sustainable living.

Fulcrum director of sustainability Brian Mark argues that the notion of integrating energy in green infrastructure through multi-functional spaces will help the eco-towns to stand out.

"Green infrastructure is excellent at micro-climate control as well as yielding, storing and treating water," he says. "There are some potentially exciting and innovative answers."

 

CABE ECO-TOWNS DESIGN REVIEW PANEL

  • Sunand Prasad (chairman) Former Royal Institute of British Architects president
  • Richard Cass (vice chairman) Architect and landscape architect
  • John Hopkins ODA project sponsor for Olympic parklands and public realm
  • Chris Baines Landscape architect and HLF expert panel member
  • Brian Mark Fulcrum director of sustainability
  • Patrick Bellew Atelier Ten founding director
  • Andrew Cromer Buro Happold director
  • Christophe Egret Studio Egret West co-founder
  • Roger Evans Urban Design Group former chair
  • Bill Gething Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios partner
  • Sir Peter Hall Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration, University College London
  • Robin Hickman Halcrow associate transport and urban planner
  • Gerard Maccreanor Maccreanor Lavington Rotterdam office director
  • Robin Nicholson Edward Cullinan Architects senior director
  • Dr Duncan Painter Ecological consultant
  • Sue Riddlestone BioRegional Development Group co-founder
  • Jon Rowland JRUD urban design practice director
  • Peter Studdert South Cambridgeshire District Council joint planning director
  • Chris Twinn Arup building engineering sustainability group director
  • Joanna Yarrow Sustainable lifestyle consultant

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