The Paul Gosling Column
The Government has set itself stiff targets for building new homes and reducing carbon emissions. It has pledged to build three million new homes by 2020, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 60% – and possibly 80% – by 2050. Potentially the targets are in serious conflict – which helps to explain why the Government has also said that all new homes should be zero carbon emitters by 2016.
Given these targets, it is probably inevitable that the Department of Communities and Local Government is creating 10 new eco-towns, which will be the first ‘new towns’ since the 60s. A shortlist of 15 has just been announced, which eliminated the most contentious 42 development proposals. Further consultation will remove another five proposed schemes, leaving five to be built by 2016 and another five by 2020.
The Co-op Group’s ‘Pennbury’ eco-town is on the shortlist of 15 – which should be no surprise to anyone who examines the proposals. It is now in a very strong position to go forward as one of the first five eco-towns to be constructed.
Pennbury would be built on what is now Leicester airfield. It would use land mostly owned by Co-operative Estates – the land and property arm of the Group – while using some owned by the Government regeneration agency English Partnerships, which was formally a hospital. While much of the site has been used for cattle grazing by the Co-op Group, a large proportion of it is classified as ‘brownfield’ because of its past. The proposal is for 12,000 to 15,000 new homes, including 4,000 affordable homes, just four miles from the south east edge of Leicester.
Despite fitting with the Government’s wider public policy objectives, inevitably it is highly contentious in the locality. An aero club that still uses the airfield and local residents are holding demonstrations outside Co-op shops and urging them to be boycotted. (Ironically, these are run by the Midlands Co-operative Society, not by the Co-op Group.) The constituency MP is Edward Garnier – a front bench legal spokesman – who is strongly opposed to the scheme. A lobbying group has been established, in which a senior Liberal Democrat councillor has taken a leading role.
The MP for the adjacent Leicester South constituency is Sir Peter Soulsby, who represents Labour and is also a Co-operative Party member. He is sympathetic to the project, while recognising its political sensitivity.
“I think that if anybody can deliver the full benefits of eco-towns, then it’s the Co-op,” he told Co-operative News. “Their commitment to the issue of sustainability and their ability to deliver social housing and the environmental elements are undoubtedly something other potential developers won’t be able to match. Having said that, as an MP for part of the city, I am concerned to ensure the transportation issue and the impact on the city are dealt with – and that a sustainable transport solution is found.
“I would be very concerned if development was at the expense of the regeneration of other urban areas. I am going to be talking with the Co-op about those issues and ensure they make the best of the opportunity for an eco-town, while protecting if possible the regeneration of the city.”
Lynda Shillaw, managing director of Co-operative Estates, said that it was committed to making progress only after local discussions. “Consultation and engagement with the community will be a central part of the project’s next stage and The Co-operative Group plans to begin the process as soon as possible, subject to agreement with the Department of Communities and Local Government and local authorities,” she said.
The Co-op Group has promised that Pennbury will involve a “step change” in terms of improved design quality, town management and community empowerment. It said that it had already outlined “a sustainable and practical transport system for the town”, but promised to work with local authorities to develop these proposals further. It also pledged to support the regeneration of Leicester city and the wider area. The Group dismissed concerns about the loss of green field space, saying that 60% of the development site would be used for food production, recreation, enhanced access and biodiversity.
Making the announcement of the shortlist of 15, housing minister Caroline Flint made clear that moving ahead with eco-towns is essential in enabling the Government to meet its house building and environmental targets. “We have a major shortfall of housing and with so many buyers struggling to find suitable homes, more affordable housing is a huge priority,” she said. “To face up to the threat of climate change, we must also cut the carbon emissions from our housing. Eco-towns will help solve both of these challenges. Building in existing towns and cities alone simply cannot provide enough new homes.”
Achieving sustainability to underpin the eco-towns development means much more than simply building properties with very high standards of insulation and using methods of micro-generation such as small wind turbines, local district heating schemes and photo-voltaic panels to convert sun rays into electricity. If eco-towns are to have the intended effect, they must also be at least partially commercially self-sustaining in terms of having well-used local shops, minimal use of private transport and excellent public transport links.
Proposals on the details of this approach have been drawn up by the Town and Country Planning Association and provisionally accepted by ministers. Roads within eco-towns will have 15 mph limits, car sharing clubs will operate across the settlements and all homes will be within 400 metres of a bus, tram or rail stop. The TCPA has also developed standards on water management and community development, with proposals on waste management to follow.
The TCPA’s outline for how community development will operate within all the eco-towns is itself interesting for anyone from a co-operative background. Community development is to be funded by the scheme developers – at Pennbury this means Co-op Estates – under a Section 106 Agreement. (Section 106 Agreements require developers to meet costs associated with the development as part of the conditions for obtaining planning permission and are often used to pay for new roads and schools where there is a major urban development.) Developers would be required to contribute to community trusts, through which resident-led groups would fund recycling schemes, debt advice and arts projects.
Flint indicated that while she supported the TCPA’s ideas as a statement of principles, they do not represent a blueprint for how schemes will operate. The proposals were criticised by the Home Builders’ Federation as being a “wish list”.
As far as the wishes for Pennbury are concerned, there remains a clear conflict. Local residents and their representatives are strongly opposed – the epitome of the ‘Nimbys’ (Not In My Back Yard). As far as the Government is concerned, if it backs down on Pennbury then it might as well give up on eco-towns. And if it concedes on those, out go the home building and carbon targets, too. There is probably too much at stake for Pennbury not to go ahead.