From 15 down to four: eco-towns get go-ahead

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Four new eco-towns, designed to meet housing needs while using the highest green standards, were given the go-ahead by the Government today after a two-year selection process which has been mired in controversy and opposition.

The four locations have been whittled down from an original list of fifteen, many of which were deeply unpopular with local residents and also with environmental campaign groups who accused the Government of using the idea to get round the planning process and build on greenfield countryside.

The four proposed new settlements announced yesterday, which will have up to 20,000 homes each and will be the first new towns built in Britain for more than 40 years, were among the least controversial on the list as they do not represent egregious examples of countryside destruction.

They are Whitehill Bordon in Hampshire, north west Bicester in Oxfordshire, Rackheath in Norfolk and the China Clay Community scheme near St Austell in Cornwall. All are supported by their local authorities, who will now be able to bid for a share of £60 million in Government support for their local infrastructure. They will have to go through the planning process.

"From a list of deeply worrying and unsustainable locations, the Government has chosen to go with the least damaging, which is encouraging," said Kate Gordon, Senior Planning Officer for The Campaign to Protect Rural England.

The new eco-towns will be built to meet the highest standards of sustainability, with low and zero carbon technologies, state-of-the-art recycling and water systems, and good public transport, and they will also have to consist of between 30 and 50 per cent social housing, as part of the Government's drive to tackle the housing crisis.

The whole eco-towns idea has been strongly associated with Gordon Brown personally: the Prime Minister announced the scheme in one of his first speeches after taking office in 2007 and personally expanded its scope, and yesterday Mr Brown gave the announcement by the Housing Minister, John Healey, his own welcome, saying the new settlements represented "a unique opportunity" to address housing and climate change.

"Eco-towns will help to relieve the shortage of affordable homes to rent and buy and to minimise the effects of climate change on a major scale," Mr Brown said. "They will provide modern homes with lower energy bills, energy efficient offices and brand new schools, community centres and services."

However, it was evident that the cross-party consensus on climate change does not extend to eco-towns, as the proposal was strongly attacked by both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. "All the low-flush toilets in the world can't make dumping a housing estate on green fields somehow environmentally friendly," said the Conservative shadow housing minister Grant Shapps, who called it an "eco-con". He said: "Underneath the thick layers of greenwash, many of these schemes are unsustainable, unviable and unpopular, but Gordon Brown wants to impose them from Whitehall irrespective of local opinion."

The Liberal Democrats housing spokeswoman Sarah Teather echoed the criticism and said the scheme was doomed to failure because central Government had imposed the eco-towns on local communities. "Local areas should be given the power to plan and build the homes they need, and every new home should be built to meet the highest environmental standards," she said.

In addition to the four locations given the go-ahead yesterday, a further two - Rossington in South Yorkshire and North-East Elsenham in Essex - still have potential to be eco-towns, the Government said, but need more work to address certain issues with the bids.

Some of the proposals in the list of 15 put forward in April last year were so deeply unpopular that the Government would have faced major protest campaigns had they gone ahead: they included the greenfield sites at Weston Otmoor in Oxfordshire and Long Marston, near Stratford on Avon, the latter attracting the ire of Stratford luvvies from Dame Judy Dench down.

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