Eco towns - new towns with a green veneer?

Tomorrows announcement that there will be another ten eco towns must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Eco towns are a key Government regeneration and housing policy but so far we have yet to see a single one come to fruition. Since the idea was muted in 2007 there have been around fifty locations promoted, most of these on in-use airfields and military bases. These were whittled down to fifteen sites and many of these are rapidly falling by the wayside, but more of that in another post.

Let me declare an interest here because I have a private pilots license and I develop and promote development, so I have a foot in two conflicting camps. I'll try to be objective.

Airfields sit in a strange planning limbo where they are usually classed as brownfield land (iepreviously developed) but 99.99% of them are actually huge undeveloped green spaces in the middle of the British countryside.

Let's call them what they are. Eco towns are new towns that won't stop at 15,000 new homes. They will need road infrastructure (dual carriageways) retail ( hypermarkets) and employment (factories). They are serious developments promoted by serious money.

Eco towns maintain the illusion of meeting brownfield development targets while creating enormous new-towns in the greenbelt. I cannot think of any other circumstance where building tens of thousands of new homes in the middle of nowhere would be permitted and actually encouraged by the planning system. All new development schemes will need to meet 'eco' standards anyway even if they are in a city centre.

So what's driving this initiative?

I suspect that the answer is local politics and finding the line of least resistance to change. Experience says that most airfields have a vocal minority of local residents who find the passing of a few Cessnas more annoying than the noise of traffic, lawnmowers, agriculture and all the other racket in our not so quiet countryside. It seems that perception plays a large part in this issue but as the case of the former airline pilot who moved next to Kemble Aerodrome and then tried to get it closed down shows, objections can come from the most unexpected quarters.

Objectors should carefully consider the alternatives though. An airfield may be seen as a bad neighbour but they should consider that two hundred acres of mainly green and quiet space is probably a better option than 15,000 new homes and twenty years of building site muck and disturbance.

Genuine engagement with all sorts of local interests must be a priority for all parties. Government targets must not be the main focus because there is a more rounded package to look at. That mightwell conclude that a new town needs to be developed but the current locational focus is more about where 'brownfield land' is available rather than whether the land is actually in the right place.

Sites are often owned and promoted by large organisations including some that consider themselves to be especially ethical such as the Co-Operative Group with their scheme to redevelop Leicester Airfield. It's certainly an interesting scheme that is shot through with environmentally sound ideas but the fundamental issue remains... should it be there at all? Who benefits apart from the Co-Op and Government statistics?

Perhaps a thin green veneer is all it takes to push something through but on the other hand perhaps we all need to wake up to how policy is being implemented while being realistic that something urgently needs to be done to house the growing population. We need 22 thousand new homes a year. We are building around 7 thousand. We need an honest look at how the entire nation operates and how we are going to house and feed people in future.

Are new eco towns on airfields the answer to our housing problems? I'm not convinced. There seems to be little that is ecological about building on fields in the countryside. Skylarks, hares, badgers and kestrels will be replaced with moggies and guinea pigs. The foxes will no doubt approve of their new urban status though.

One thing is for sure, some people might get more than they bargained for when they complained about their little neighbourhood airfield. With choices like that, who would want to be a NIMBY?