Talk about the five 'eco-towns' that Gordon Brown would like to propose has filled the trade press and had significant mainstream press coverage too. Common mis-perceptions have been that these are actually new towns (they aren't - they are existing development sites or areas that he would apply new 'green' rules to), and he has also attracted criticism (epitomised by Jonathan Glancey
) that this is merely greenwash over the same old 'unsustainable' growth areas. Because Brown commissioned the Barker reviews of both housing supply and planning, and those reviews raised the hackles of people who, fundamentally, want to contain development and seem to believe it is impossible to build new housing developments that actually do have a sustainability of their own, sections of the commentators have already cast Brown as the bad guy who doesn't care - who wants to erase our green fields at any cost and carpet the land with Wimpey homes.
But it may be that actually he does mean it when he talks about sustainability. I'm loathe to judge either way before the detail comes out. It is true that many developments that completed recently have not epitomise sustainability - lacking shops, schools, local jobs. But that does not mean it isn't possible to do better - and indeed, that there may be projects in the current pipeline that will do better. It is notoriously difficult to phase the development of major employment opportunities and housing in tandem. Inevitably, for some time, there will be commuting one way or the other. And I do sometimes wonder how many of the critics have actually visited a representative spread of new housing developments. Sure, they aren't all pretty, but some are actually sensibly sited near town centres and services, and meet real needs for local housing.
And let's at least praise Brown for committing to some action, unlike the Tories who have yet to detail any concrete plans for implementing their new-found greenness and passion for new housing (for fear of upsetting their voters who are anti-development, I might suspect). Given that these 'new' towns will be built anyway, one way or another, isn't it better that he makes them conform to at least some green standards (renewable energy, sustainable drainage, higher building performance)?
We can't afford to be anti-development for the sake of it; and it is a fallacy to claim, like Glancey, that urban infill can provide the quality of life and housing, or the quantity, that will solve our housing problems. Reviving local economies needs housing nearby, and building the housing may actually precipitate people who live in it deciding to set up businesses locally, in the medium term. London can't and shouldn't provide all the jobs, if you are serious about sustainability; the rest of the country isn't just for leisure and holiday homes. So let's just give these new developments a chance - and the greener they are, the better.