Sunday, July 19, 2009

Eco-towns have had a rough ride

It's pretty well accepted that energy efficiency and conservation are among the most cost-effective green strategies. It follows that building green eco-towns from the ground up makes good sense from both economic and environmental perspectives.

However, Eco-towns are not without their critics. Some observers are concerned (and not without cause) that investing in the construction of eco-towns may divert funds away from efforts to improve existing housing stock -- especially in low income communities. They fear that Eco-towns may work and become expensive environmentally-friendly islands out of reach for all but the most affluent members of society. (GW)

Four ecotowns given the green light

By Alok Jha
The Guardian
July 16, 2009

Towns to tackle Britain's housing shortage while minimising damage to the environment by showcasing energy efficient homes and green transport

The government today gave the go-ahead for the construction of four eco-towns, offering 10,000 homes overall, which, it hopes, will showcase environmentally friendly living in the UK.

The settlements, to be built by 2016, will include the latest in energy efficiency measures, streets with charging points for electric cars and numerous cycle routes as well as easy access to public transport.

The locations are Whitehill Borden in Hampshire, the China Clay Community at St Austell, Cornwall, Rackheath in Norfolk and north-west Bicester, in Oxfordshire. Each site will be allocated a share of £60m for their "green" infrastructure.

The towns are designed to tackle Britain's housing shortage while minimising damage to the environment – more than a quarter of the UK's CO2 emissions come from energy use in houses.

Launching the initiative Gordon Brown said earlier today: "Eco-towns will help to relieve the shortage of affordable homes to rent and buy, and minimise the effects of climate change on a major scale. They will provide modern homes with lower energy bills, energy efficient offices and brand-new schools, community centres and services."

But eco-towns have been criticised ever since Brown announced his plan to build up to 100,000 homes in five green towns, soon after succeeding Tony Blair as prime minister in 2007.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England wanted the government to scale back the programme to one or two showcase towns, arguing that officials should concentrate on refurbishing existing properties and redeveloping derelict brownfield sites as well as bring 800,000 empty homes in England back to use.

The eco-towns will still require planning permission and could face opposition from residents anxious about the impact on rural areas.

The housing minister John Healey said: "I recognise that the proposals can raise strong opinions, but climate change threatens us all and with our commitment to the eco-towns we are taking steps to meet this challenge and help build more affordable housing."

He said Britain was leading the world in designing zero-carbon buildings. "One in three of Britain's homes in 2050 will be built between now and then, so we have to set clear, green, standards for the future. I am confirming that all new homes from 2016 will have to meet a tough zero-carbon standard, so they are cleaner, greener and cheaper to run."

In addition to the four eco-towns, a further two, Rossington, in South Yorkshire and North-East Elsenham, Essex, are on the cards for the scheme's second wave. The government wants up to 10 eco-towns completed or under way by 2020.

Friends of the Earth's executive director, Andy Atkins, welcomed the plans. But he said: "The bigger challenge is to ensure that all new housing is built to the highest environmental standards. Ministers must ensure that all the two million homes that they plan to build across the country are truly green and help meet UK targets for tackling climate change."

Grant Shapps, the Tories' housing spokesperson and MP for Welwyn Hatfield, dismissed eco-towns as a gimmick. "Underneath the thick layers of greenwash many of these schemes are unsustainable, unviable and unpopular, but Gordon Brown wants to impose them from Whitehall irrespective of local opinion."

John Alker, of the UK Green Building Council, said that although eco-towns had had a rough ride, the idea behind them was sound. "The current economic climate is very challenging for new house building in the short-term, but zero carbon homes, sustainable transport, a robust local economy and access to green space are all vital ingredients of new places fit for the 21st century.

He added: "The eco-towns brand has taken a battering, but if these developments go through the interrogation of a proper planning process, are linked to existing communities, have local support and are built to the very highest environmental standards, then it can only be a good thing. Building green homes on a large scale … will also reduce the green cost premium and help provide a blueprint for the homes of the future."

Inside an eco town...

• Community-scale heat sources, possibly using combined heat and power plants
• Charging points for electric cars
• All homes within 10 minutes walk of frequent public transport and everyday services
• Parks, playgrounds and gardens to make up 40% of towns
• Individual homes must achieve 70% carbon savings above current building regulations in terms of heating, hot water and lighting
• Zero-carbon buildings including shops, restaurants and schools
• Ensuring a minimum of one job per house can be reached by walking, cycling or public transport to reduce dependence on the car
• Car journeys to make up less than half of all journeys
• Locating homes within ten minutes walk of frequent public transport and everyday neighbourhood services
• Homes fitted with smart meters and solar and wind generation. Residents will be able to control the heat and ventilation of their homes at the touch of a button and sell their surplus energy into the grid


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