Friday, 4 April 2008

A new Eco-Town for Sussex!

Yesterday government announced that 10 new “Eco-Towns” are to be built in England, and gave a short list of 15 from which the eventual 10 will be selected.

Maybe this sounds like good news, if you do not delve too deeply. These new towns are supposed to consist of carbon neutral developments, locations to act as exemplars of sustainable, environmentally friendly technology. Low impact, affordable, green homes – assuming you have to build new houses somewhere, what could be wrong with that?

Well, several things actually….

First – we have been talking for decades about the need to produce high quality, environmentally friendly homes that have a low ecological impact. Now, eventually and very late in the day, government reckons we should be building some, and it is in these Eco-Towns that they will be built. The first question therefore is why on earth should this approach be limited to so-called Eco-Towns? There is an accepted need that development should move ahead in a modern way. Climate change is upon us, long term development will only be possible if it delivers the needed energy efficiency changes. Hyper-efficient, carbon-neutral homes must be the norm, not the exception. Government has plans for 3 million homes in England. Assuming about 10,000 homes in each of the 10 Eco-Towns, this is only 100,000 homes built to a decent modern standard. What about the other 2,900,000?

House-builders and developers could not possibly complain about this. The writing on the wall could not be any larger – a universal, high quality approach is needed now, not at some indeterminate time in the future, or only limited to a few special places. And, of course, it would set a level playing field for all development, so no house builder would be disadvantaged.

The second point is regarding where these developments are going to be placed. The choice of the 15 on the shortlist seems to have come out of nowhere. These are not the result of a strategic assessment of where environmentally sensitive development could be placed for best effect. They are just somebody’s bright idea!

For example, Ford in West Sussex is one of the lucky locations on the shortlist. Who proposed this? Local Authorities, County Councils, local organisations and local communities are all against it so it seems to have parachuted in off someone else’s sketchbook!

The ford proposal could have a devastating effect on the area. Even if the site is developed in an enviornmentally friendly way, this would still bring a huge number of people into the area. The pressure for a very damaging bypass around Arundle would increase, road improvements would be pushed through and large amounts of other "supporting infrastructure" would be required. This all adds up to the urbanisation of the lower sectin of the river Arun valley.

Very complicated discussions have taken place, strategic plans written, controversies fought over and Inquiries held. Out of all of this has come a huge level of proposed development for Sussex (that the Sussex Wildlife Trust has consistently fought against). This is bad enough – but these new Eco-Towns are in addition to the painful levels of development already forced upon us.

The approach to Eco-Towns seems very narrowly focused. It is centred on creating carbon-neutral development. A laudable objective certainly, but surely only one part of a complete environmental agenda for an area. An Eco-town should have a much more rounded environmental vision. This must start with a proper understanding of the environmental assets (the wildlife, landscape and heritage) of the place and then deliver a proper plan for how these are to be conserved, managed and expanded as part of a wide package that enhances the area. Part of this will be energy efficiency, but developing a Living Landscape fit for people should also be central.

There is very little clue that this is what is in the minds of government, and this is exposed by some of the site choices. For instance the proposal for Shipton in Oxfordshire is likely to damage or destroy a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Site of Nature Conservation Importance and a Nature Reserve. This seems to start off, therefore, as a very non-eco Eco-Town.

Perhaps there is an old game in play here.

It has long been a tactic of those proposing development to suggest some absolutely appalling locations alongside the merely quite bad. In this way, it is hoped, rabid environmentalists will focus their attentions on the absolutely appalling and let the others slip through! Of course the worst locations may never have been serious options; they are simply there to draw fire away from the preferred developments. Eventually the worst options are withdrawn, us environmentalists claim a success, and the developers get what they wanted in the first place.

May be this is the point about Ford. There will be an outcry about Shipton in Oxfordshire, with a national effort to conserve designated sites. The Ford proposal, however will “only” erode one of the few remaining areas of rural countryside on the Sussex coastal plain, is “only” development in a flood plain (and that never stopped anyone anyway), it “only” has local County, District and Conservation bodies to defend it and will “only” upset the setting of a future National Park. Against Shipton in Oxfordshire it may seem the natural choice!

My message to government is to start again:

  • Criteria for carbon-neutral development should be applied everywhere not just in Eco-Towns
  • Any new development, especially Eco-Towns, should start with a strong, coherent environmental vision, aiming to look after and enhance what is there.
  • Part of this vision must be to conserve and enhance the wildlife value of these areas, developing a strong green network for people and wildlife that positively improves the area.
  • Eco-Towns should not be parachuted in to locations, they should be part of a strategic assessment of development need for an area, not separate from it.
  • All development, especially Eco-Towns should be assessed on their entire ecological impact, not just carbon footprint.

You can find out more through the link The prospectus for Eco-Towns is available here as is the document "Eco-towns, living a greener future" which is the announcement made in April 2008. This contains details on how to respond.