Editor-At-Large: A vision that will make slums of what's left of our rural heritage

Ministers can refuse to listen to architects, planners and builders on so-called 'eco towns', but the British public will not be ignored

Janet Street-Porter
Sunday 29 June 2008 00:00

Tomorrow, central London will be paralysed as people from all over Britain march voicing displeasure at the demented plans to desecrate the English countryside with 10 new eco-towns.

These protesters aren't just Nimbies, but voters incredulous that Housing minister Caroline Flint is persisting with a scheme which has been condemned by architects, planners, builders, transport experts and local councillors – all in the name of fulfilling Gordon Brown's aim to build three million new homes by 2020.

Tomorrow is the final day of the Government's consultation process, after which the sites will be whittled down from 15 to 10, five of which will be built by 2016, providing around 160,000 new dwellings, of which 40 per cent will be designated affordable housing.

If ever there was a good example of greenwash, this is it. The Department of Communities and Local Government set up a committee of experts to evaluate the short-listed sites. They found a third of the proposals came from companies which had previously developed land and sold it on to Tesco or Asda. Tesco is bidding to develop the site at Hanley Grange outside Cambridge, the Co-op on land it owns at Pennbury in Leicestershire. It stinks. Only two of the schemes on the list received this committee's support as fulfilling the eco aims of the "big idea" – Bordon in Hampshire (on disused MoD land) and Rossington in South Yorkshire (a former colliery). They concluded that most of the schemes were just "housing estates with a green label".

So far, seven local councils have voted against the sites, with only one, Bordon-Whitehill in Hampshire, receiving local approval. The petition against Marston Vale, near Milton Keynes, clocked up 60,000 signatures. Thousands more have signed the petition against the town at Ford, outside Bognor, where local councillors are worried it will mean the end of the regeneration of their run-down seaside resort. The same story is repeated all over the country. I've written about eco-towns twice – no subject has unleashed such a torrent of letters – and it's clear this issue will become the poll tax of the dying days of the Brown government, a massive vote-loser for Labour.

If Lord Rogers – who chaired Tony Blair's Urban Task Force – says, "I fear we may be building the slums of tomorrow", then you know something is seriously wrong. There are concerns that achieving the right eco-standards of construction may mean that affordable houses end up costing £300,000 – not very affordable by most standards! Most of these new towns do not have the right transport infrastructure – resulting in more congestion and increased car usage. In short, they are suburbs without any heart. A small handful, on brownfield sites, might work, but not 10. We should be thinking small, not macho, and carefully renovating and renewing existing towns which are steeped in history and already have a mixture of architectural styles, parks and meeting places.

Sadly, no politician currently has the balls to think creatively like this, certainly not the ambitious Ms Flint. If you want to see why we shouldn't build eco-towns, take a look at the disaster that's unfolding in the Thames Gateway, another government "grand design", referred to by Lord Rogers as shoddy toy-town houses.

Gokspeak is the must-have voice of the people

Gok Wan's new series 'Gok's Fashion Fix' has me hooked. I know he jabbers away in weird Gokspeak, which means we're referred to as "you guys" while he witters at 100mph about "label slaves" and "catwalk face-offs", but this is the guy I want to take shopping with me.

So much television consists of humiliating people whereas Gok is pure joy: his whole approach is one of celebration. In that he has a lot in common with Gordon Ramsay, and this show has the same competitive elements as 'The F Word'.

But, while Gordon is obsessed with quality ingredients, Gok is as common as muck. His lifeblood is cheap and cheerful – he snips a foot off the hem of a cheap frock, whacks on fake roses sprayed with starch, and hey presto, a must-have look. I'm even sounding like Gok.

Papa don't preach about marriage

Marriage is out of fashion. New statistics produced at the end of last week show most people over the age of 16 are either single, widowed or divorced.

The figures relate to 2005, but because the number of couples marrying each year has been in decline since 1997, in 2008 less than half the adult population will be married.

More than four million of us live with partners and are unwilling to commit our relationships to a legal status. At the current rate, only 40 per cent of women will be married in 25 years' time.

Now we're seeing the break-up of same-sex civil partnerships – like that of Matt Lucas and his partner – which seem to confirm that signing a piece of paper doesn't guarantee a rosy future no matter what your sexual orientation.

Having been married and divorced four times, I don't plan to try and perfect what I am clearly useless at, and I'm sure Madonna feels the same way.

Shareholders chicken out at Tesco

Tesco was under fire on several fronts last week, including over how it permits chickens to be reared, what workers get paid to sew clothes in Bangalore, and a letter Barack Obama wrote to chief executive Sir Terry Leahy, asking him to talk to US unions at Fresh & Easy.

Sadly, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall failed to get Tesco to improve the conditions in which the chickens it sells are reared – shareholders defeated his proposal that Tesco complies with the RSPCA's Freedom Food farm standards. Hugh garnered just under 10 per cent of the vote, but he's got my support. Tesco called War on Want's report on conditions at their suppliers' factories in India "unsubstantiated", but I don't know what I'd find worse – spending my life cooped up with thousands of other birds as a £1.99 chook, or bent over a sewing machine for 54 hours a week for less than £7...

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