“Eco-towns” Ignite UK Debate

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Plans by Britain’s Labour Government to build new “ecotowns” are sparking demonstrations outside Parliament and elsewhere in Britain.

The government wants to build a total of 10 “zero carbon-emission communities,” containing 5-15,000 housing units each, with five completed by 2016. Announcing the project last year, then Labour Housing Minister Yvette Cooper said the new towns would address the country’s urgent need for more affordable housing while cutting carbon emissions.

The developments were to be built on brownfields or surplus public land linked to public transportation, and would serve as a testbed of new environmental technologies for Britain’s emerging green industrial sector.

However, the list of 15 possible ecotown sites recently put forward by Cooper’s successor Caroline Flint has raised questions about the viability of the basic concept and the government’s credibility. Opponents believe the proposed towns represent unaccountable, developer-driven planning that replicates some of the worst features of suburban sprawl.

For example, critics say some ecotowns would be built not on brownfields but on greenfield sites chosen by developers, including some linked to Tesco, a major UK supermarket chain. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the proposed “Pennbury” ecotown would even use up valuable farm land near an historic market town.

Although the proposed eco-developments are in theory subject to local review, some local officials are complaining about the increased demand for costly infrastructure they would create, and about the central government’s failure to take existing local development plans into account. One official attributes the selection of a site near Stratford-on-Avon—an area that already has adequate housing and employment— to the potentially lucrative sale of government land.

In response, ecotown supporters accuse opponents of “NIMBYism.” Prospective developers are also promising various inducements like free public transit, computer terminals with constantly updated transit information, and extensive bicycle paths.

But some people just think ecotowns are a bad idea. A Times of London editorialist recently wrote that “Zero-carbon house-building is about as likely as the odourless fart,” adding “The unremarkable truth is that car use is at its lowest where people live closest to city centres and are linked to them by public transport.”

The Labour government should perhaps consider the proposal by Sian Berry of Britain’s Green Party, who last year wrote that “green” industrial development should be based not on ecotowns but on hundreds of small locally-based eco-projects to retrofit and rehabilitate older housing stock in areas rich in public transit. Working with local officials and groups to “green” such areas would likely produce more, and more immediate, benefits than urbanizing additional greenfields in the name of ecology.

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