Eco-towns: an opportunity to get it right

A new panel has been suggesting much-needed improvements to current plans. Magda Ibrahim reports.

Months of controversy have dogged the Government's proposals to develop up to 10 eco-towns across the UK, with criticism coming from leading figures in landscape architecture and green industries over a lack of real innovation emerging from the plans.

Despite the latest progress report from housing minister Caroline Flint (HW, 31 July) claiming to unveil the toughest-ever standards for the new developments, an allocation of just 20 per cent of the total land area as public open space was knocked by experts for only meeting the current status quo.

GreenSpace chief executive Paul Bramhill explained: "We could view it as a reinforcement of what are considered the norms in major towns and cities."

BALI technical director Neil Huck agreed: "The environment in high-density urban areas has got to change and improve. People need a greener environment to live in, but there is a lot more best practice going on across Europe than in the UK and we can learn from that."

To improve the eco-town proposals coming in from promoters and developers of the sites, the Government appointed a panel of experts to advise and make recommendations on the schemes.

The first report from the Eco-town Challenge Panel, released at the end of June, was a damning read and highlighted the need for high-quality design and green infrastructure. But a second scrutinising document, published last week, points to improvements.

Panel chairman John Walker said he is encouraged by the changes: "In all cases, the panel made suggestions about where it believes further progress is most needed and many of the proposals have shown significant and encouraging progress."

Some of the major concerns for the Communities & Local Government-appointed panel in its first report included the fact that many of the schemes looked like "typical commercial developments".

The Landscape Institute's policy committee chairman and commercial property consultancy Drivers Jonas head of sustainability Jon Lovell believes one of the major elements needed is a strong focus on promoting an understanding of climate change issues in order for the potential of the eco-towns to be realised.

"Eco-towns are, in principle, the best opportunity to realise true sustainable development that integrates economic, social and environmental performance," Lovell said.

Since the publication of those first recommendations, two of the original shortlisted 15 schemes - Manby in Lincolnshire and Curborough in Staffordshire - have pulled out of the race.

The Eco-town Challenge Panel met with the promoters of the developments again on 7-15 July, and on 31 July published its second set of notes and recommendations on the proposals.

Marston Vale is applauded for "raising the game" with proposals such as creating trusts to manage community assets, an idea that has also been developed in the Hanley Grange scheme in its vision for the town's green spaces.

The Bordon-Whitehill site has been picked out for providing an "extraordinary opportunity in urban design" and the panel has recommended that the proposers encourage the development of a relationship between the existing dense urban areas and the green space.

The panel was impressed by Pennbury's interesting and unique "great park" concept of a multi-functional working landscape farmed for both energy and food, and welcomed the new partnership between the St Austell (China Clay) bidders and the Eden Project.

But with only 13 possible sites now remaining, and a decision set to be made early next year on which ones will actually go ahead, question marks hang over how many of those projects will meet the exacting standards required to make them exemplary schemes.

"We should be looking at examples from across Europe, and the landscape industry as a whole can potentially have a very large impact on climate change," Huck said.

And even if 10 schemes - the number proposed by Government to be created by 2020 - do go ahead, they are a drop in the ocean in terms of the total three million new homes target it has set.

Landscape planning consultant Ian Philips represents the Landscape Institute on the Town & Country Planning Association's eco-town working group and would like to see inspiring ideas that can easily translate into plans for the rest of the millions of potential new homes. "If the eco-towns are to prove their worth they should be seen as pilots for future projects with the ability to translate lessons learned into new developments. Germany and the Netherlands seem to be way ahead of the UK in green engineering and making effective use of green space."

He added that potential schemes should be examining the possibility of tree planting as a crop for biomass energy use, not just for amenity purposes.

"There is a need for a multi-disciplinary approach to be taken by everyone in the development business, not just in eco-town settlements but in all new housing," said Philips.

"Eco-towns must be the standard bearers for the very highest quality that is achievable and allow for a certain amount of experimentation; what I have seen so far is not sufficiently radical or innovative to justify eco-towns being branded as leaders."

Revised shortlist

The remaining 13 shortlisted eco-towns are:
- Bordon-Whitehill, Hampshire
- Ford, West Sussex
- Greater Norwich, Norfolk
- Hanley Grange, Cambridgeshire
- Leeds City Region, West Yorkshire
- Marston Vale, Bedfordshire
- Middle Quinton, Warwickshire
- North East Elsenham, Essex
- Pennbury, Leicestershire
- Rossington, South Yorkshire
- Rushcliffe, Nottinghamshire
- St Austell China Clay Community, Cornwall
- Weston Otmoor, Oxfordshire

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