Turn our cities into eco-towns, not build new ones

by Michael Smith

A leading environmental institute has hit out a Government plans to build new eco-towns from scratch, arguing that it would be more sustainable to address the impact of our existing urban centers. And this was about time too.

In a response to the Government's Draft Planning Policy Statement on Eco-towns the Chartered Institute of Water & Environmental Management (CIWEM) has questioned whether the planned settlements will really forward the sustainability agenda – and rightly so.

I have been questioning the policy of new settlements as Eco-Towns for a considerable time now – in fact from the beginning that it was suggested.

It is totally bonkers, to use a good old English phrase, to think about building new settlements as Eco-Towns where we have perfectly good examples that could be turned into eco-towns already in existence, namely our existing towns and cities.

The eco-towns program of the government aims to address the twin concerns of climate change and the growing demand for housing. The solution, therefore, that government puts forward is, in essence, to build new settlements that have environmental measures built in from the outset.

The CIWEM is among the growing number of organizations that have begun to question the wisdom of this strategy, however, arguing that while building new low-impact towns might seem an easy win, the impact from the built environmental could be more effectively tackled by making better use of what we already have in place.

"From the outset, eco-towns will involve the construction of new homes, transport infrastructure and other basic services," said a statement published by the institute.

"But the UK already has potential eco-towns, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, which have the fundamentals of settled and sustainable communities such as schools, hospitals and transport.

"CIWEM recognizes that re-developing existing urban centers in a more sustainable form raises major challenges but, if challenging targets on carbon emissions reduction are to be met, the Government must focus on this front.

"CIWEM believes that a commitment of funding and retro-fitting would make these cities carbon-neutral.

"In the context of the UK, new housing provision as discussed by the Barker Report is simply unsustainable and wider policies relating to population growth, consumption and lifestyle must be discussed by Government as a matter of urgency.

"What is faced in modern times is not a housing crisis per se, but an unsustainably large population living on a small island, using resources at a far greater rate than can be replenished."

In addition it has to be said that there is a lot of empty housing stock about that simply is allowed to fall into disrepair and is left standing without anyone occupying it. Let's give people the ability to rent those properties at a low rent with also giving them the possibilities of doing up those properties.

Landlords that speculate with empty housing stock which is falling apart, more or less, must have this housing stock taken away from them and put to use by the local authorities and we must get back to rented housing that, in fact, is owned by the municipalities.

If we want to have enough housing for everyone in the British Isles then we must revert the policies of the Thatcher years. But, it would appear, that no one is willing to do so.

Eco-towns, as envisaged by the current regime in Britain is not going to solve anything. It is neither going to have any impact on the housing crisis nor is it going to benefit the environment. In fact all that building is going to be impacting negatively on the environment and the climate.

Any blind person with a white cane can see the impact the building, from scratch, of such new eco-towns is going to have.

Even regardless of whether or not new eco-towns be built, the existing buildings, residential and non-residential, in our villages, towns and cities must be “greened” in the same way. Otherwise all the eco-town stuff will do nothing and be nothing but window dressing.

© M Smith (Veshengro), 2009