Select Committee on Environmental Audit Twelfth Report

6  Eco-towns

68.  In March 2007 the Government announced plans for five new "eco-towns" of between 5,000 and 10,000 homes; in September 2007, this was increased to 10 eco-towns of up to 20,000 homes.[107] The Government expects that five will be built by 2016 and up to 10 by 2020.[108] It is currently reviewing 13 proposed locations. In July 2008 CLG published Eco-Towns: Living a greener future: Progress report. This said: "Eco-towns are a response to the challenges of climate change, the need for more sustainable living, and an acute housing shortage—including the need for more affordable housing particularly for families and first-time buyers."[109] It suggested that eco-towns ought to deliver at least a 60% reduction (on 1990 levels) in carbon emissions per resident,[110] and said they should be:

  • new settlements for between 5,000 and 15,000 families, with good links to existing towns;
  • affordable—30 to 50 per cent of the new homes will be affordable housing;
  • zero carbon—promoting sustainable and healthy living for existing and future generations;
  • equipped with schools, health services, a medium scale retail centre, business space and leisure facilities;
  • attractive places—with large amounts of open, green space, and state-of-the-art building design; and
  • developed with the community for the community.[111]

69.  The idea of eco-towns generally received a cautious welcome in the evidence we received. However, many submissions contained forceful criticisms and recommendations. One of the main points was that eco-towns would not make that significant a contribution to the Government's overall house-building targets, nor the objectives of increasing affordability that lie behind them. For instance, David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, told us:

They are potentially [important], but we are talking about three million new homes and the number of homes that will be supplied in eco towns might be 100,000, 150,000—it is a relatively small proportion of the total. The importance of eco towns […] is whether they become exemplars […] and that learning from those becomes embedded in what we do right across the country. […] But there is a danger that too much concentration on the eco towns will take our gaze away from making the bigger target of the three million new homes and the good supply of affordable rented housing.[112]

70.  The Government has certainly endorsed one part of this argument, that eco-towns should be influential exemplars. The memo from Defra and CLG said:

The Government is asking each eco-town proposal to demonstrate the highest level of excellence in one particular aspect of environmental sustainability (in addition to higher than regulatory standards across a wide range of environmental impacts). For example, this could be in water efficiency levels, or sustainable drainage systems. In this way eco-towns will demonstrate as beacons of excellence in the practical demonstration of environmental sustainability. Among the ideas and examples of innovative approaches included by bidders are:

  • underground systems for waste recycling;
  • free public transport for residents;
  • variable charging for car use and remote parking to deter car use for short journeys;
  • green routes to school;
  • planting and harvesting woodland around the eco-town to provide biomass fuelled energy;
  • using waste heat from nearby power stations for homes and businesses.[113]

71.  CABE welcomed these proposals, but stressed that, because eco-towns will only make up a minority of new housing, that "the ambitious environmental criteria for development in the proposed eco towns need to be applied to all significant development." Indeed, they called for the Government to ensure that "from 2016 all significant developments are subject to the same tests as for eco-towns."[114] We asked Dr Richard Simmons, CABE's chief executive, whether this was practical. He told us:

I think it is pretty demanding but if we are going to use eco-towns to set the standard—and I think that is the purpose of them, they are there to be the exemplars—then I do not see why the rest of the population should not benefit from exactly the same tests. In fact the government has said in the Thames Gateway already it is going to have what they call an eco-quarter, where they are going to apply the eco-town principles to a substantial chunk of new developments in the Thames Gateway. So it seems that that principle is understood. The industry will probably find it quite challenging but if we do not do that then how are we going to get to the stage of having somewhere like Birmingham, for example, being able to describe itself as an eco-city?[115]

72.  We welcome the idea of setting high sustainability standards for eco-towns, and for encouraging innovative approaches to design and technology that can have a wider application throughout the country. We note, however, that they are only scheduled to be completed by 2020, the same year by which the Government wants 3 million homes to be built. We wonder how great an influence they will have in practice, therefore, unless the Government is envisaging a further major programme house-building on top of the 3 million new homes by 2020 target. We recommend that the Government applies the same environmental tests as set for eco-towns to all major housing developments from 2016. The Government must make clear how eco-towns will improve sustainability and reduce carbon emissions, particularly through the wider influence they could have on existing communities.

73.  Other criticisms we received focused on Government policy on deciding where eco-towns should be sited—and on the very principle of building wholly new, discrete settlements. The LGA complained that the entire eco-towns process was outside the existing planning system. Paul Bettinson of the LGA argued that "simply making dwellings ecologically sound is no reason for bypassing the planning process which looks at many of the other elements of a successful development".[116] CPRE supported this argument, saying:

A serious concern […] is that so much of the eco-towns process appears to lie outside the established planning system. […] These plans provide the basis for planning decisions, they foster consensus and provide certainty to decision makers, business and communities about the level and location of new development. […] In pursuing the eco-towns initiative in the manner it has done, the Government is jeopardising the achievement of these plans and sidelining the considerable time and effort communities, business and planners have put into drawing them up. This is the antithesis of good planning and crucially, for the purposes of this inquiry, unlikely to foster sustainable development.[117]

CPRE also expressed concern that some of the proposed eco-town sites were on, or adjacent to, green belt land. They proposed that, rather than building wholly new towns, the Government should build "eco-extensions" to or "eco-quarters" within existing towns.[118]

74.  Sustrans and Car Free UK were concerned that such new, discrete settlements would be likely to be dependent on car travel—thus leading to increased carbon emissions, as well as vulnerability to future oil price shocks. Car Free UK noted that:

In none of the [proposed eco-town sites], with the possible exception of Marston, does a mainline railway station near the new town centre seem likely, and the dispersed settlement proposal there raises serious doubts about its sustainability. In several cases rail is mentioned as a possibility, but the line is either at one extremity of the site (Ford, Elsenham, Weston Otmoor), or separated from it.[119]

75.  CABE were among many organisations which echoed this concern, stressing that eco-towns should be sited not simply where there is land available, but where they can be connected with existing transport infrastructure and labour markets. They criticised the proposed eco-towns as potentially being too small, and thus become simply "dormitory towns" for commuters.[120]

76.  We share many of our witnesses' concerns about the full environmental impacts of eco-towns. We recommend that the Government re-examines its proposals to ensure they generate a much greater level of sustainability, particularly in terms of being located close to existing commercial centres, employment opportunities, and public transport links.

107   "'Eco-towns' target doubled by PM", BBC News website, 24 September 2007 Back

108   CLG, Eco-Towns: Living a greener future: Progress report, July 2008, p 5 Back

109   CLG, Eco-Towns: Living a greener future: Progress report, p 5 Back

110   CLG, Eco-Towns: Living a greener future: Progress report, p 15 Back

111   CLG, Eco-Towns: Living a greener future: Progress report, p 6 Back

112   Q73 Back

113   Ev 90 Back

114   Ev 22 Back

115   Q67 Back

116   Q50 Back

117   Ev 64 Back

118   Ev 64 Back

119   Ev 108 Back

120   Ev 22 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 3 November 2008