The Big Question: What are eco-towns, and how green are they in reality?

Why are we asking this now?

Because yesterday the Government closed its consultation process on 15 potential eco-towns that could be sited across Britain, while protesters angry at the whole idea demonstrated outside Parliament.

So what are eco-towns?

New towns comprising substantial settlements in the countryside of up to 20,000 homes each – that's the key thing to understand, and the main reason for the opposition to them. They would be the first new towns built in Britain for more than 40 years. The difference from previous new settlements is that these would have to 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. They would 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.

What's the problem?

The problem is the thing that estate agents and property dealers bang on about – location, location and location. These are huge tranches of new housing, which weren't in any carefully-considered, much-voted-on local authority housing plans, that are suddenly about to be sited, mostly, in open countryside. Many local communities fear that the character of their districts will be urbanised, and are angry that they were not consulted.

What is meant by 'suddenly about to be sited'?

The whole idea of eco-towns came out of the blue, having been suggested by Gordon Brown in one of his first speeches as Prime Minister just under a year ago. The Government then invited bids from developers, and received nearly 60, which were whittled down to a "long short-list" of 15 by April; it has been inviting comment on these 15 in the consultation exercise which ended yesterday. Some time in the autumn, the Housing Minister, Caroline Flint, will announce which will go ahead (and it will be "up to 10").

So who's protesting?

Organised campaigns against nine of the proposed eco-towns were represented at the demonstration outside the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Campaigners present included Tony Henman, father of the tennis star Tim Henman, who is opposing the proposed 10,000 to 15,000-home new settlement at Weston Otmoor, Oxfordshire, close to his own village of Weston-on-the-Green. He said: "The message we want to convey is that we're certainly in favour of new, affordable housing but it's got to be in the right place."

Mike Brain, a councillor in Stratford-upon-Avon District Council, said plans to build 6,000 houses in a scheme at nearby Middle Quinton was inappropriate for an area with no unemployment, few housing needs and where it went against local planning policy. Other high-profile figures have added their support to protests against the Middle Quinton scheme, among them actors Dame Judi Dench and John Nettles and the author Jilly Cooper.

Isn't this just nimbyism?

Well, one man's nimbysim is another man's local democracy. The background to the whole argument is the conflict between new housing and the countryside which has been a major feature of the Labour Government of the last 11 years. The Government is committed – and this is a strong personal commitment from Gordon Brown – to building three million new homes in Britain between now and 2020. However, many of these will have to be in the countryside, and local rural communities may object.

It is fair to say that with its centralising tendencies, this Government has never been over-fond of local planning powers, and so in 2004 it took away the ability of county councils to decide their own future housing numbers, giving this to the new regional assemblies – which it could much more easily control.

In its latest planning bill the Government is going to shift this power once again, giving it this time to the regional development agencies, whose overwhelming preoccupation is economic growth. Tom Oliver, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, says this is like "allowing Napoleon to decide who should win the battle of Waterloo".

The announcement of the eco-towns was seen by many people as yet another bypassing of the local democratic process in the pursuit of the housebuilding agenda. Even though those developments eventually chosen will have to go through the planning process, it is a fair assumption that strong Government backing for them would count considerably towards eventual success. Yet some people may feel that to seek to circumvent local planning obstacles in pursuit of housebuilding, when new housing is a pressing social need, is perfectly right and proper.

Don't eco-towns have important green benefits?

In theory, absolutely. A strong case can be made for having new settlements which are examplars of the latest good environmental practice, and which can be beacons for enlightened development elsewhere. However, some critics, and not just local objectors, fear that some of the eco-towns may just be old-fashioned speculative housing projects dressed up in green to get Government approval. After all, the process is mainly developer-led; these settlements are not being built by Greenpeace, but by housebuilders seeking to make high profits.

Concerns have recently arisen as to just how environmentally-friendly some of them are; for example, the Eco-towns Challenge Panel, a review body set up by the Department of Communities and Local Government to assess the current proposals, recognised failings in all of them (although it also recognised benefits.) A commonly expressed concern is that building lots of new houses away from other settlements may only increase dependence on cars and private transport. A more substantial criticism is that it is wrong to "ghettoise" good environmental practice into eco-towns; it should be compulsory with all new housebuilding.

So are they or aren't they good for the environment?

You need to take a balanced view in each case. One of the shrewdest commentators on Britain's housing policy, who is also a committed environmentalist, Tony Burton, the director of policy and strategy at the National Trust, said of eco-towns earlier this year: "It doesn't matter how much energy efficiency and water resource management it has, that can't make a development that's in the wrong place suddenly be in the right one."

So will eco-towns deliver what they promise?

Yes

*They will employ the latest developments in environmental technology

*They will show how whole communities can have a greener existence when planned properly

*They will be beacons of environmental excellence for other developments in the future

No

*They will take up large amounts of open countryside, damaging landscape and biodiversity

*They 'ghettoise' good environmental practice, which should be universal with new homes

*They may even create environmental problems, such as increased car-dependence

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