They promised us the future. But if this is it, they can keep it

After all the delays, the Greenwich Millennium Village homes are finally on sale. They were hyped as models of future housing - but the reality is rather different
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Estate agents' advice on selling houses is simplistic: prepare some freshly ground coffee and fill the place with flowers. Or in the case of two show homes in the long-awaited Greenwich Millennium Village, which went on sale this weekend, do up the inside in fashionable neutrals and clad the outside in cedar wood that silvers with age. Outside, build a dinky wooden balcony and a series of walkways with views over the canal, roll out the squeaky green turf, and declare the place open at pounds 196,000 for the two- bedroom show home and pounds 155,000 for the studio.

Estate agents' advice on selling houses is simplistic: prepare some freshly ground coffee and fill the place with flowers. Or in the case of two show homes in the long-awaited Greenwich Millennium Village, which went on sale this weekend, do up the inside in fashionable neutrals and clad the outside in cedar wood that silvers with age. Outside, build a dinky wooden balcony and a series of walkways with views over the canal, roll out the squeaky green turf, and declare the place open at pounds 196,000 for the two- bedroom show home and pounds 155,000 for the studio.

There's nothing wrong with all this if you're the property developers working on the 36 acres of wet and windy wasteland just behind the Dome on the Greenwich Peninsula. Just don't paint a bright bubble outside calling the project the "Houses of the Future" and get the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to launch them as models for the rest of Britain. What he likes about them is the buzz-phrase "mixed sustainable development" - a term used to describe public and private-sector housing which is so well integrated that you can't tell them apart. Oh, but at Greenwich Village you can. They have assigned two different architects to design two different blocks, called Phases One and Two. They may as well be called Them and Us.

Phase One is the gentrified, private-ownership section and Phase Two, which accounts for one in five of the properties, is for "social" housing. Of those, some will be for sale, some for rent at a cost of between pounds 35 and pounds 55 per week, and some for shared ownership. Although both types are clustered together, they plan to site Phase Two far from the hub of the village green and the accompanying waterside views, in rather more modest buildings. In fact, these are perfectly hideous constructions which drop from eight to four storeys in one vertiginous swoop. Some of the bedrooms on the ground floor do not even have windows. They are also being built to different time-scales. Phase One is proceeding at a leisurely pace with 50 show homes ready in the next four to five years. The 138 apartments of Phase Two will be ready by 2001.

"Mixed integration avoids keeping the poor segregated well away from the rich," says Jonny Popper from the Moat Housing Association, patently ignoring the canal moat separating the gentrified waterfront wing from three big blocks in Phase Two. The sign that reads "Danger Deep Water" on the bridge was whitewashed over for photocalls with the Deputy Prime Minister, who appeared to be waving, not drowning, as he declared Greenwich Village a model town. And that's not the only whitewash around. While Phase One residents can drive their cars beneath their houses, to be parked under the green, Phase Two residents had better think about phasing out cars altogether. Apart from drop-off zones for the disabled, shopping and children, their cars, calculated at 0.8 car-parking spaces per family (presumably a Sinclair C5 then), will be parked in decked "bunds" miles away.

Phase One's vaulted glass-roofed penthouses - for pounds 395,000 by BDP Partnership - have the prime site, overlooking the village green and the lake. Call it "Mon Repos" or, as Alan Cherry of Greenwich Millennium Village Ltd (GMVL) describes it, "high-density housing", which is just another way of saying not a lot of space for the money but bags of style. This is all that remains of the 87-year-old architect Ralph Erskine's vision of the village as a "showpiece of brilliant design and technological solutions as well as a true expression of the ideas about respect for human dignity, equality and freedom we foster in our democratic society". They pasted this homily up in the sales office/visitor centre, but a more pithy observation would be George Orwell's "all animals are equal but some are more equal than others".

Alan Cherry, head of GMVL, was telling the truth when he revealed that the crush of people keen to live on the Greenwich Peninsula would be disappointed as many would have to be turned away. Not the gold-card carrying invest- ors with Peps who are needed to buy into the scheme, but the locals who want cheap, fixed rentals and shared ownerships.

These homes for the future are really timber-clad, steel-frame prefabs with bathroom pods made in Hull and shipped on to site. British Telecom is putting all the houses on-line digitally, and the developers are "talking to Thames Water about recycling water to flush the loos". A central boiler gas system, individually piped into each metered house, saves maintenance costs and space, but there is no eco-chic technology such as reed beds that filter bath water or solar panels glinting on the vaulted roofs to feed electricity back into the grid. Maybe we shouldn't have such high expectations.

Greenwich Millennium Village came with a lot of hype, from the moment English Partnerships bought the 300 acres of polluted wasteland from British Gas for pounds 20m, set up a joint venture with two property developers, Countrywide and Taylor Woodrow, and began to develop 35 acres for a ball park figure of pounds 35m. The name for a start. Village - with its ring of the green, the pub, the clock standing at ten to three - sounds so much nicer than factory town. The reality is that the first of 4,000 houses planned for the 35- acre site will stand alongside factories, shops and the Royal Mail sorting office in the slipstream of the Dome right next door.

The first 15 acres of the GMVL development have been slow to get off the ground. With planning permission to develop 1,400 houses in four phases at a cost of pounds 15m, this works out at about pounds 11,000 per house. But this figure does not take into account the infrastructure, over which there have been wrangles. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions cleaned up the contamination of the British Gas site, but the developers have to landscape it. More than 60,000 shrubs have been planted, with walkways, roads, computerised bus lanes and even a school already built, and a health centre to come.

As Johannes Kavatt from Ralph Erskine's office observed, building houses in England as opposed to Sweden is "so bloody difficult". In Sweden, the council implements the masterplan but there is revenue to be made from paring down costs on the houses,which means they are pre-fab design & build for assembly on the site, and contain public- sector housing as much as possible. There will also be revenue from shops, restaurants, and pubs which will follow the residents' arrival as surely as night follows day. But first, the houses have to be sold.

Greenwich Millennium Village got off to a bad start after architect Hunt Thompson Associates, implementing Erskine's masterplan, fell out with the developers after an acrimonious dispute over delays and the dumbing down of the designs. John Prescott called in the chairman of his Urban Task Force, Richard Rogers, to sort it all out. The day before John Prescott's re-launch of the much feted, ill-fated project, all that HTA can say is that it stands by everything it said.

It was not invited to the relaunch, so we shall have to look for the truth behind the fashionable furnishing of the show-houses. Is it a pleasant but unexceptional housing estate at cut-throat prices, or a prototypical model for other sites, "a concept for the 21st century, revolutionary in design and a model for environmental sustainability", as John Prescott sells it? House buyers will vote with their chequebooks.

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