Editor-At-Large: Eco-towns are just vandalism dressed up in a trendy green coat

Who wants new communities when thousands of existing houses stand empty? Even builders agree – government plans are potty
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The Independent Online

Another week, another Government target missed – that's the downside of setting optimistic objectives in the hope of seducing voters. So far this year the number of new houses being built in England is running at the lowest level since Labour came to power – just over 32,000 homes are under construction. The pledge to build 240,000 new homes a year by 2016 stands about as much chance of being achieved as that other New Labour dream – the eradication of child poverty.

Mortgages are drying up, repayments cost more, the spectre of repossessions looms and house prices slump. Against this doom-ridden scenario Housing minister Caroline Flint blithely presses ahead with her bonkers masterplan for eco-towns sprinkled like a poisonous blight over the greenest bits of England.

With the cut-off date for objections to the 10 proposed sites just a few weeks away, thousands of protesters have been galvanised into rallies. In Leicester, nearly 15,000 people signed a petition against the proposed eco-town of Pennbury on land owned by Labour Party donors the Co-op. In West Sussex, more than 6,500 have objected to the proposed town of Ford, outside Arundel. A story repeating itself all over the country.

But this isn't a simple case of middle-class, rural Nimbys wanting to keep out those on lower incomes. The Government's determination to press ahead with eco-towns could turn out to be as big a mistake for it as the poll tax was for the Tories. Put simply, eco-towns are the biggest disaster for the countryside since motorways. Acts of vandalism camouflaged with trendy green credentials.

How green can it be to concrete a field, create a housing estate that can only be reached by car? What happened to regeneration, urban renewal, revitalising existing small towns and villages?

The building industry is in meltdown. As house building slows down, workers are laid off, estate agents go bust, and the ripples affect associated businesses. But even builders agree that slapping brand new communities of 15-20,000 homes in the middle of the countryside is utter folly. After I wrote about eco-towns recently, dozens of readers emailed to agree – and the Federation of Master Builders wrote that "eco-towns are a red herring to give the Government's housing plans a stamp of green credibility.... There are 675,000 homes in England alone sitting empty... all ripe for refitting with green technologies". It's incredible that the Government seems determined to build these monuments to its pigheadedness up and down the land, when even builders (who stand to profit) think it's potty!

Some eco-towns, such as the one proposed around St Austell on disused land owned by the china clay mining industry, can arguably be justified: they are on brownfield sites, and include new railway stations and ample open space in a depressed area. Others are not. There's no way you can call Ford an eco-town if 87 per cent of the land is arable and sited next to farms growing vegetables and salads for Waitrose. In Leicester, 94 per cent of the proposed site for 20,000 homes is arable, heavy clay used as pasture. The Co-op claims it will be growing fruit and veg around its new development, but experts say the soil is unsuitable. More importantly, 16,000 homes sit empty in the city, where the council has been turning disused textile factories into residential units. That's eco-development – recycling what already exists.

New homes are VAT zero-rated, but full tax is paid on repairs to existing buildings. The Government should alter VAT to 5 per cent on renovations, encouraging people to redevelop their homes, and give bigger tax breaks to those who install green technology. Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) apply to 15 million homes in England and Wales, allowing some changes to the structure without planning permission. PDRs should be rejigged to allow people to create more than one dwelling out of their home by building extensions, expanding lofts, digging out cellars and, making them eco-sound in the process, solving the housing shortage at a stroke.

The short-sighted Ms Flint insists that eco-towns are separate from existing communities, but to be desirable and attractive to buyers, any new development has to be integrated into older villages and towns, with more money invested in their regeneration. Otherwise, we will be constructing rural ghettos.

The dieting duchess comes to the rescue

New statistics confirm that our young men and women lead the fatties of Europe. But help is at hand. Sarah, Duchess of York is seeking a new role helping the Government with the obesity crisis. Tomorrow, ITV is screening a documentary following the Duchess as she swaps New York for Hull, where she attempts to love-bomb the Sargerson family into adopting a healthy eating plan.

I can't recommend this programme highly enough. It's the biggest load of bilge transmitted for years. Her gig as paid spokesperson for WeightWatchers USA now over, she's seeking new challenges: this film is a cynical attempt to rebrand herself as a New Age guru. After a toe-curling speech at her daughter's school, it's off up north. "I've never stayed in a guest house," she gushes. Later she confides, "I like Hull. It's a great city. it's got a feel of real solid Britishness." "I don't normally go to supermarkets," she tells Mum. "They gave me masses of love," she sobs after less than a week. Don't hold your breath for that call from the Health minister, love.

Gee, Gordon... How deep is your love?

More worry for those concerned about Gordon Brown's tenuous grip on the real world: he's a secret disco bunny. He might be reviled daily by critics in the media and plotted against by rebels in his own party, but the PM can console himself with the knowledge that he has true friends in unexpected places – one of his biggest fans turns out to be Bee Gee Robin Gibb.

Robin, who these days resembles the Mekon of Mekonta from the Dan Dare comic strip crossed with Kermit the Frog, tells a journalist that the Prime Minister listens to the Bee Gees every single day!! How do we know this is true? Because Gordon told Robin this fascinating factoid when they had dinner recently.

Robin Gibb has form with prime ministers: the Blair family stayed in his house in Miami last year. He reveals that notoriously buttoned-up Brown adores his music "because it talks about human relationships and experiences" and confided to the musician that his "music is absolutely timeless".

I have this image of Gordon. He's pacing the floor of his study, unable to sleep at 5am, and practising his fancy disco footwork as he sings along to "Stayin' Alive"....

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