Inside Britain's happiest eco-town

Never mind solar panels and protesters – one new low-carbon development is designed above all to build a sense of community. Donnachadh McCarthy finds peace and love

Wednesday 06 February 2008 01:00

It's not every day that you glimpse a vision of the future. And it's all the more surprising for this vision to consist of a group of houses made not with hi-tech steel, glass and concrete, but with an altogether more old-fashioned material: wood. As the road ahead bends and the new houses come into view, it's hard not to be thrilled at the thought that finally someone's really thinking about what an eco-village should be.

It is not simply that the design of The Wintles is a beautiful combination of local vernacular and modern aesthetics. You get the sense that there is something else special about these homes. Absent are the regimented lines of modern, soulless housing estates. Instead, about 12 houses of various shapes and sizes are clustered in a circle around a small communal green.

With me is Bob Tomlinson, the man who thought up the masterplan for this site, just outside Bishop's Castle, in Shropshire. For him, eco-thinking runs deeper than the inclusion of solar panels and windmills strapped to chimneys. For a start, there's all that wood, which isn't just there to create a groovy rustic vibe. Many eco-developments, once closely examined, prove to be little more than houses with concrete-riddled designs, higher levels of insulation than normal and a token cycle park. And that's really not in the spirit of things – the concrete industry accounts for 5 per cent of total global carbon dioxide emissions (that's even more than aviation).

But more than just selecting the right materials, a sense of healthy community is one key feature Tomlinson tried to build into The Wintles. Tomlinson feels that modern estate housing does not encourage people to put down roots and create good communities. The modern habit of moving home, on average, every seven years comes at a huge cost to the environment. Not only does it damage human relationships, but a huge amount of waste is created in the constant redecorating and refurnishing generated by this housing carousel.

"We are using this site as a test bed for a revolution in eco-building," says Tomlinson. "The old village has been around since the time of the Domesday Book, and it was the fact that it has been successful as a community for so long that inspired us to look at the reasons for its success." Tomlinson is passionate in his belief that an eco-town must not only be built using the latest low-carbon technologies but must also engender a sense of place, to be a town that will work from one generation to the next and be able to feed and clothe itself from local products.

A real community, he says, requires a full range of households and homes that are suitable for both shy people and extroverts and those of varying incomes. Uniquely, the development contains about 12 acres of shared woodland, orchards and allotments, which he believes is one of the most important eco-aspects of the development. When you realise up to 30 per cent of our carbon footprints arise from food production, you can see he has a point.

He says that, historically, Bishop's Castle already had some of these attributes. "The layout of the old town encourages a sense of community. Because its main street is so steep and has awkward corners, it's hard to navigate for cars, which means more people walk. So the locals bump into each other and catch up." It has a fairly high density of residences, with many two- and three-storey terrace houses with only very small gardens, or none at all. The residents did, however, have medieval "burgage plots" beside the village where they could grow fruit and vegetables.

So when the Living Village Trust, which he helped set up in 1993, was looking for a site in Bishop's Castle, Tomlinson thought it should reflect the same community principles that had helped Bishop's Castle to survive successfully over the centuries. The first step was to buy a failed pub in the village, The Six Bells, and to relaunch it with a micro-brewery producing its own ale and to use the plot beside it to build five eco-houses. The Wintles development is the latest phase of the process. Some of the eco-houses here are built already, and more are on their way.

Fundamental to the vision of The Wintles is that a neighbourhood should consist of no more than 70 households, made up of clusters of about 10 to 12 homes. Tomlinson believes such clusters of homes require no formal committees to run themselves or to manage their shared woodland and orchards. As for the buildings themselves, they are wooden-framed and have good levels of high-performance insulation made from recycled paper (called Warmcel). By positioning bigger windows on the south side of the houses, they make the most of the sun to heat and light them. Hot water comes from solar power. And concrete use is kept to a minimum in the foundations.

These small steps all add up. In a study carried out on previous Living Villages developments, the two things that reduced the households' carbon footprints the most were the wood-burning fires for heating and successful car clubs.

Despite the sound design of the homes, not everyone could see the logic. The banks that lent the money insisted on central heating being put in, even though the homes were heated perfectly well by wood-burners. The heating engineers would not sign off the properties without insisting on radiators being installed upstairs, even though, due to the very high insulation, they were unnecessary. The water company insisted on Living Villages taking external liability for any problem with the rain-harvesting system, which caused further problems with the banks. And the council insisted on the approach road being wide enough for two refuse trucks to pass – even though this is deepest Shropshire.

But do the houses work? Tomlinson's theory about the design facilitating social intercourse is proven as we walk around The Wintles. One resident, David Clarke, comes to his front door and he invites Tomlinson and myself inside. Soon he is telling us about how much he loves his new home. "The way the houses are arranged in a circle is really important to us, as you see the neighbours all the time and so we got to know them really easily. You end up spending loads more time talking and you quickly find out if people are ill and need some help."

With Clarke's feet bare, in the depths of winter, it was obvious he was not feeling cold – his wood burner was blazing cheerfully in the living room. Did he need to use the central-heating, which is fuelled by LPG (liquid petroleum gas), which the bank insisted on being installed? "We only used it once last year when the temperature dropped to minus 10 degrees. LPG is too expensive compared with our wood-heater."

On the downside, Clarke feels the north-facing hallway is a bit dark. But the real proof of the pudding is in his parting comment: "I would now find it very difficult to move to a house that doesn't have eco-features."

As we continue to stroll around the development, passing the site where the builders are busy constructing the next two circles of housing, Tomlinson chats about the trust's journey so far and I begin to get an idea of how much our institutions need to change if we are to reduce our CO2 emissions. The hurdles he has had to overcome show how hard pioneering eco-housing can still be. He went through three architect firms but failed to get one that could translate his ideas about community eco-sustainability into physical structures.

So where does the Living Villages Trust go from here? Tomlinson is derisive about how some planners are disastrously moving again towards residential tower-blocks. He says that studies have shown that the higher one lives in a tower block, the more time one is likely to spend in a psychiatric unit.

Tomlinson is determined to take the successful Bishop's Castle model into Britain's major towns and cities. Living Villages is already at various stages of negotiations for building another 2,000 eco-homes across Britain. He says the Scottish authorities are far ahead of England when it comes to understanding the issues around community eco-sustainability.

Heading back to catch the train, I can only think that, with Living Villages demonstrating in real life that all these theories work, hopefully it will not be long before English planners are also singing from The Wintles' eco-community hymn sheet. It would also be a big step forward if banks stopped insisting on central heating, the plumbers didn't press for extra radiators, and that instead they all started to learn from Tomlinson's example.

Properties in the final phase range from £299,000 for a three-bedroom home to £500,000 for a five-bedroom home (

The Living Villages ethos

* An eco-community should have no more than 10 to 12 households; the wider neighbourhood should have only 40 to 70 households.

* Homes must be designed to accommodate a full range of households and types of people.

* Front doors should face each other on a circular communal area.

* Cars should be banned from the front-door area and not be allowed to drive directly through the development.

* Developments should have land set aside for woodland, orchards and allotments.

* The houses should be ultra-energy efficient, include passive solar design and wood-burners for heating.

* Designs should reflect the local vernacular and be made as much as possible from local materials.

* The design should encourage residents to stay for their lifetime and work for the next generation of their family, too.

The best new green homes

By Eeve Middleton

Millfield Eco Projects, Kingston St Mary, Taunton, Somerset

What makes it green?

An 18 eco-property development, Millfield uses timber and the latest carbon-neutral technology to build each house. The walls and roof are insulated to the highest standard with cellulose fibre made from recycled paper, allowing the walls to breathe and stopping fungus and decay.

The interiors include appliances of the highest energy-efficiency, and there are triple-glazed windows and low-energy lighting. The heating for each house is provided by a pump system that uses the earth's natural heat to warm up the interior. The properties also collect and utiltise rain water.

Where's the "wow" factor?

The development nestles on the edge of Somerset's Quantock Hills – an area of outstanding natural beauty.

From £275,000 for a three-to four-bedroom detached house (01823 451 256;

Trelowarren, Mawgan, nr Helston, Cornwall

What makes it green?

Trelowarren isn't just any eco-development – its 15 properties are situated in the grounds of Sir Ferrers Vyvyan's 1,000-year-old estate in West Cornwall. The luxury timeshares – all restored from old outbuildings – are set in a listed landscape of beautiful woodlands and stunning beaches. Marketed as "responsible eco-tourism", they meet the highest standards of construction to the design of environmental architects Gale & Snowden. All materials used come from sustainable sources as close to the estate as possible. The interior of the properties are furnished with organic paints and textiles.

Where's the "wow" factor?

Daphne du Maurier was so taken with Trelowarren after staying with the Vyvyans that it became the inspiration for her novel Frenchman's Creek.

From £10,000 for a 25-year-lease (01326 222 105;

Ecos Homes, Langport, Somerset

What makes it green?

Situated in the lea of the Polden Hills, the site for these eco-homes was formerly (and rather aptly) used as an apple store. The houses – three terraced three-bed houses and two four-bed detached houses – are tucked away in a conservation area and have minimal impact on the environment. External features include durable weatherboarding, triple-glazed windows, a rainwater harvesting system, and solar electric panels. The inside of the property is just as innovative, with energy-efficient graded appliances and wood-pellet stoves. The properties are built to level five of the Government's sustainable homes criteria – the highest being level 6, equivalent to zero- carbon.

Where's the "wow" factor?

The gardens have been landscaped to support wildlife and provide residents with space to grow produce.

From £399,950 for a four-bedroom detached house(01458 259 400;

Yours South Lynn, South Lynn, Norfolk

What makes it green?

The fourth of only seven UK "millennium communities" as designated by the Government, this eco-housing development offers equal priority to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. It also has streets designed to reduce traffic speed and safe areas for children to play. The houses are built with timber frames, have increased insulation and are soundproofed so noise pollution is kept to a minimum (a bonus with the safe play areas around). The insulation in each property means that 40 per cent less CO2 is emitted. The developer has also included segregated recycling bins and facilities in kitchens for separating waste.

Where's the "wow" factor?

There are open spaces designed to encourage wildlife and increase biodiversity, and free bikes for each home.

And there are plans to generate power from renewable resources.

From £134,950 for a two-bed flat (0845 257 2135;

Ecostessey Park, Costessey, Norfolk

What makes it green?

Ecostessey Park is a development of 22 zero-carbon eco-chic townhouses. Each property is built with innovative ecological technologies, and is designed in a contemporary idiom.

The houses have solar-powered water heating using photovoltaic panels, high-insulation windows and doors, internal party and external walls, roofs and floors. Internally there are heat-recovery and filtered air systems, rainwater harvesters, recycling containers, waste compactors, and low-energy light bulbs. The development utilises green wind-farm electricity and smart meters to monitor electrical use. Window glass is self-cleaning.

Where's the "wow" factor?

The setting: it's a private estate on the banks of the River Tud.

From £270,000 for a three-bed town house (01603 749 105;

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