Eco-Towns – New Homes and Communities in the Pipeline.

With the need for more homes becoming increasingly prominent on the political horizon, new-build housing is being encouraged by the government by means of the New Homes Bonus, this year’s allocation for which was recently announced (see also our original article on the subject). Amongst a number of other policies, the construction of whole new towns is still on the cards, following the successful example of the four waves of new towns that were constructed between 1946 and 1970, including such thriving centres as Milton Keynes, Peterborough and Northampton.

The modern variant is a so-called ‘Eco-town’, and they are slowly popping up throughout the country. In June 2007, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown revealed a target of 3 million new homes by 2020, and eco-towns were the way to achieve it. 15 new towns were shortlisted for development, and then the process of consultations and planning permissions started.

To qualify as an eco-town, a development should have between 5,000 – 20,000 homes, at least 30% of which should be ‘affordable’, a distinct identity of its own, a good range of local facilities for the new community, and a zero-carbon footprint in at least one area of environmental technology.

In July 2009, four new town sites were given government support and approval – Rackheath in Norfolk, St Austell in Cornwall, North-west Bicester in Oxfordshire and Whitehill Bordon in Hampshire. However, Rackheath has only just been given a green-light by planning inspectors (25th Feb 2012), as part of a wider agreement for Greater Norwich, Whitehill Bordon’s Exhibition House is only now being built at the time of writing, the first-phase of North-West Bicester was granted permission in August 2011 (the demonstration house was opened in May), and Cornwall’s planning application is still being processed.

Some would claim that not a lot of progress has been made since Gordon Brown’s sweeping commitment in 2003, but other developments are in the pipeline to push things along.

On 23rd February 2012, South Cambridgeshire District Council  agreed to support Northstowe, northwest of Cambridge, which will be the biggest new town since Milton Keynes. It is proposed that 10,000 homes will be built on the former RAF Oakington Barracks site and an application for permission has been submitted for phase one of 1,500 of those homes.

On the outskirts of York, the new village of Derwenthorpe is finally being built, although currently only the show-home is complete. It was proposed, back in 1998, that the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust buy the land from York Council, and make a new community there, in a similar way that Joseph Rowntree created New Earswick in 1902. Having been blocked several times by protesters, it was eventually successful.

An unlikely pioneer in housing development has appeared in the form of Damien Hirst, who proposes to build 500 eco-homes near Ilfracombe in Devon. The houses are to be in keeping with the current town’s properties, but with environmentally sustainable technology to make them energy efficient. Assuming he gets the planning permissions, building is due to start in 2013.

Sadly, the chronic undersupply of housing is a pressing concern and, as the lack of progress in recent years has displayed, the solution is taking a long time in coming. No doubt the Government will be hoping that its reform of the National Planning Policy Framework will assist in pushing a few more eco-towns through the system and into reality.

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