Janet Street-Porter: But would you want to live in an eco-town?

Thursday 28 February 2008 01:00

Soon the majority of the world's population will be living in towns and cities rather than the countryside, according to a new United Nations report.

By 2025 eight new mega-cities of more than 10m inhabitants will have been created. At present around three quarters of the British population live in built-up areas, but if the Government's agenda for building 240,000 new homes a year by 2016 is to be realised, around a quarter of them will be built on green field sites, shrinking what remains of our countryside even further. The plans for 10 new eco-towns are controversial, provoking demonstrations in areas where locals fear they may be sited.

The housing minister, Caroline Flint, yesterday spoke at Ecobuild, an exhibition designed to showcase the market in environmentally friendly building products. Claiming that up to 50 per cent of the housing in the 10 eco-towns she will greenlight this summer will be of the affordable variety, she enthused about 50 per cent of the inhabitants not using cars. It sounds like the glorious days of Welwyn Garden city all over again, one of our most widely copied model cities, built in the 1920s with each street a mixture of low-cost and luxury housing, and no-one more than 15 minutes walk from pubic transport, schools or shops.

The problem with eco-towns is they are fully formed dream schemes being dropped into mainly rural areas – and our track record of building towns from scratch has been lamentable. Look at Thamesmead, Stevenage and Basildon to see how arid and unlovely these town centres are – bleak areas with rubbish blowing about, large areas of concrete, boarded-up shops, gangs of feral youth hanging around because there's nothing for them to do. About as far removed from the community spirit you find in small towns and villages in rural areas as you can imagine.

Unless eco towns have sufficient money invested in all the essential non-housing elements like green spaces, skateboards and BMX parks, communal buildings to house youth clubs, farmers' markets, the WI, pilates classes, mother-and-baby mornings, and what I call "talking points" which give a sense of place (like the Angel of the North), they will never be communities that people will want to stay in for more than a short period.

Wayne Hemingway sold his fashion business Red or Dead to set up a business specialising in affordable design, advising large building companies on how to create socially-aware low cost housing. At the same event, he observed that most of the housing built in the 1970s in Britain only had a life-span of 30 years – and so eco-towns may erode the countryside for only short-term benefit, if they are not carefully created mixed communities which people will become emotionally attached to.

Sustainability, according to Wayne, isn't about solar panels or earth roofs. It means creating places where small children can kick balls, teenagers can do their own stuff, local shops thrive, and people feel safe. The Government's burden of the eco-targets that have to be met by builders means that money for all of this is being squeezed to an unacceptable level.

Instead of eco-towns, it would have been better to revitalise existing small-town centres, tear down the second-rate shopping parades and put up affordable housing right slap bang in the centre of existing communities, close to shops and transport, instead of creating acres and acres of new build in the countryside surrounded by giant retail boxes. The current plan will only alienates rural inhabitants and create more ghettoes for the future.

Blunkett should be banged up!

David Blunkett's memoirs didn't soar up the charts, and now the former home secretary has turned to a reality TV show to boost his profile. Banged Up with Blunkett is the cringe-making title of a series on Five, in which young people will be incarcerated in a former prison outside Scarborough, where they'll be visited by Mr Blunkett, and receive chats from ex-convicts about the pitfalls of crime. If I were participating in this froth, it would be derided as mindless sensationalism, but Mr Blunkett assures us that "forewarning young people what prison is like and encouraging them to take an alternative path... has to make sense". Will he be advising on fathering children outside marriage?

* We're told that antidepressants work as well as placebos, but for many they can produce unwelcome side effects. One controversial use of antidepressants is for pain relief, something I had experience of a year or so ago when I was suffering from acute pain in my shoulder as a result of a torn tendon.

I was prescribed antidepressants at night as well as sleeping pills. At first, the dose was relatively small, but then you are encouraged to increase it for maximum effectiveness. My insomnia was really debilitating so I gave it a try – but I hated the spaced-out feeling I got each morning.

Eventually I sorted my shoulder out by having an injection into the joint and chucked away the antidepressants. I am sceptical of what's called "pain management" – a new breed of specialists are prescribing all sorts of chemical combinations of mood-altering drugs to combat insomnia. I'm not at all sure that antidepressants ever work in this context, and surely the fewer pills we take every day the better.

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