Have you heard about one of the government’s latest wheezes? Eco-towns – sound great don’t they? And so very "Vote Blue, Go Green" too. In February the government will announce its preferred sites for ten of these new model towns.
If the word "eco" is put in front of anything, it makes it unassailable, of course. And it gets better. The ambition is to ensure that half of the houses in these brand new eco-towns are affordable. We would have ten shining new eco-towns with affordable houses. A good Cameroon like me can’t possibly oppose such a magnificent combination. It would be like being against apple pie or Christmas.
Well, I’m against them. I’m all in favour of affordable housing, and I’m all in favour of reducing the carbon footprint of new housing – and old housing too, but these eco-towns are just another Labour gimmick that is more about spin than substance. The folly is that they risk substituting a quick-fix (and a damaging one too) for the real hard work of providing sufficient housing and making our total housing stock more environmentally sustainable.
I’m taking a special interest because the government is considering proposals for two eco-towns wholly or partly in my constituency, and I know something about the local implications of both.
If a new town is to be a genuine eco-town, if it is to be sustainable and not to put a burden on the wider infrastructure of its area, and if half the houses are to be affordable, then half the jobs provided in the town must be "affordable" too, for all the people living in those affordable homes. Fat chance.
No, they will get in their cars and drive to where the jobs actually are, putting a significant strain on the infrastructure and damaging the environment.
We know and understand that these towns will have their own local infrastructure, but they will also put huge demands on the wider infrastructure of their area, particularly on the things that worry me most as a constituency MP — the roads, the railways, the hospitals, the waste disposal systems, water and sewage systems and even power supplies.
Precisely because eco-towns can’t exist in a vacuum, they will have a big impact on the current residents of an area. Even if they are "sustainable" in their own right, what impact will they have on the quality of life of other people already living locally?
How can the government decide on the location of these towns without using the planning system properly to establish where they ought to go? For example, in my own area , if a new eco-town is built at Throckmorton, what impact would it have on the very attractive Georgian market town of Pershore, which is only a couple of miles away? How can the Government decide that it is right to go ahead with that eco-town when they do not understand the dynamics of south Worcestershire and the possible impact on that other community?
Secrecy is a big worry too. We do not even know what criteria the Government is using to assess the eco-towns. We do not know how big many of them are going to be. Parliamentary questions have produced very little more than platitudes and stalling tactics.
In my part of the world, we have three district councils that are already trying to plan their "joint core strategy" and their infrastructure, without knowing what the regional spatial strategy numbers will be. Now they don’t even how many eco-towns they will have imposed on them. It is a silly way to tackle housing need and the environment. It risks seriously undermining the planning process. The whole idea needs to be rethought urgently.