In a property industry laden with gloom over the shortage of new homes, house prices that remain stubbornly out of reach and predictable identikit designs, it is heartening to know that one sector is not only optimistic but is promising some of the most innovative new homes in the country.
Step forward those pioneering developers involved in Britain's sustainable communities – new green villages and towns promising homes that literally will not cost the earth.
There are about 10 communities around the country, loosely following principles known in the construction industry as New Urbanism. This philosophy, first extolled in the US in the 1980s, advocates small settlements of a few thousand homes with a clear neighbourhood "centre" and an appropriate number of schools and facilities. Cars are discouraged but public transport and walking are definitely "in"; the idea is for work-places, transport hubs and shops to lie within a five-minute radius of where people live.
Sounds logical, doesn't it? Yet most communities consist of homes built in different eras, often without nearby infrastructure for families, and whose inhabitants are reliant largely on private cars. That is exactly what John Hodkin wants to avoid at a new sustainable community he is constructing in Cornwall.
The scheme, called the Baal and West Carclaze Eco-community, will ultimately have 2,000 homes – 40 per cent affordable and all of them showcasing new energy-efficiency features – plus a new primary school and nursery, a matrix of footpaths and cycleways, and new bus services.
There will be 350 jobs on a 10-acre employment park and 500 acres of open space, new lakes and landscaping (some occupied by nature conservation projects) on what used to be six eyesore china-clay quarries close to St Austell.
At a time when many mainstream housing schemes are on ice because property developers are unable to borrow money, or to buy land from owners waiting for plot prices to pick up, this scheme has just been submitted for planning application after extensive talks with the site owner and the local community.
Hodkin's ambition is vast: he promises to create "one of the most sustainable integrated town developments in Europe" and has already held 120 hours of public consultation, organised 18 exhibitions and meetings and sounded out 1,500 people and 300 businesses.
"The plans are the result of several years of work and extensive interaction with the local community, all focused on economic, social and environmental regeneration," he says.
Hodkin's shrewd consultation work has so far avoided the kinds of protest seen at other sustainable schemes. For example, Tim Henman, the former British tennis No 1, led protests against an eco-town at Weston-on-the-Green, Oxfordshire – a project that has now been abandoned – and local opposition led to the scrapping of a scheme at Long Marston, Warwickshire.
Groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England have used "umbrella" arguments against significant new settlements of any kind, but those sustainable schemes that are still making progress have avoided strong local opposition.
In the Cotswolds, the Bicester Eco Development Masterplan has outlined its £74m first phase of a decade-long project. This covers an initial development of 393 homes, a large energy centre – to generate much of the new village's power – plus a nursery, community centre, primary school, three shops, small business units and, intriguingly, what is described as an "eco-pub".
The companies and councils behind the development have linked up with the Co-op to provide a store sourcing supplies locally, and plan to run eco-related courses at a local college for people aged 16 years and over. This is joined-up sustainable planning of a high order.
Terry Farrell, Bicester's architect and something of a poster-boy for sustainable planning, describes it as "a model for sustainable development in this country". He says: "I feel very passionately about the idea that eco-towns should be about rethinking our existing towns."
In Cambridgeshire, the proposed new town of Northstowe is also seen as an exemplar of sustainability. It will eventually contain 9,500 homes on the site of the old RAF Oakington, which until recently was used as an immigration reception centre. The developers, Gallagher Estates, and the government's trimmed-down Homes and Communities Agency have looked at sustainable energy plants in eco-towns in Germany, Denmark and Sweden for inspiration for their proposals.
In Devon, plans for the long-awaited Sherford new town in the South Hams – an area notorious for its high house prices and large numbers of second homes – are now nearing the end of detailed discussions between the developer, Red Tree, and the local councils. The town will be an over-spill for Plymouth but this utilitarian purpose has not blunted its credentials.
Sherford is set to house 12,000 people within the next 20 years. It will support four schools, two community wind turbines, a health centre, a park-and-ride service, and shops and business units. A spokesman for the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, which has overseen some of the design, says: "Sherford is a unique opportunity to create a truly sustainable community ... delivering a quality of design and sense of place that exceeds all expectations of a development of this type."
One thing noticeable at Sherford, and at many other pioneering sustainable project, is the absence of familiar house builders. Although many of them are experimenting with greener house-building techniques and materials – encouraged by ever-tighter building regulations – they regard this new wave of sustainable communities as unlikely to generate the short-term profits which determine many of their development decisions.
"Many of the land owners and builders involved in these projects are individuals or companies with a long-standing involvement in the areas. They're financially relatively secure – even in today's climate – and are in it for the long term," says Jon Neale, a partner in the residential research team of the property consultancy King Sturge.
"The infrastructure costs are immense. Getting roads and utilities done up front often costs far more than building the homes, so it's often landowners' co-operation which is key to allowing a scheme to go ahead. Allowing land to be sold at what may be below-market values today may pay big dividends if the scheme is successful," says Neale.
"In other words," he adds, "you get more return in the end from building a Bath than a Swindon, even though the initial costs will be far greater."
No one is yet suggesting this new wave of sustainable communities will pass the test of time as Bath has – but they at least appear to be riding the downturn.
Eco-towns of the future
On the drawing board
* Sherford near Plymouth (www.redtreellp.com);
* Northstowe, Cambridgeshire (www.northstowe.uk.com);
* Bicester Eco Development (www.p3eco.com)
* Baal and West Carclaze, Cornwall (www.eco-bos.co.uk);
* Whitehill Bordon Eco-Town (www.whitehillbordon.com);
* Rackheath, Norfolk (www.rackheatheco-community.com);
* Polnoon, Renfrewshire (www.scotland.gov.uk);
* Par Docks, Blackpool, Goobarrow, and Drinnick & Nanpean, four small associated sustainable schemes in Cornwall (www.ecobos.co.uk).
Up and running
* Hockerton Housing Project, Nottinghamshire (www.hockertonhousingproject.org.uk);
* Greenwich Millennium Village (which involves Countryside Properties and Taylor Wimpey) (www.gmv.gb.com);
* BedZed, Hackbridge, east London (www.zedfactory.com).
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies