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01 September 2008

Eco Town Wars

Written by Published in Issue 11 - Nomad Read 2075 times

I’ve had an interesting few weeks sitting on the Eco Towns Challenge Panel. The proposed eco town programme to deliver up to ten new settlements in England has naturally caused a major outbreak, nay plague, of nimbyism (Not In My Back Yard)

Many of the new towns and settlements commissioned in the UK since the successes of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City are having to have regeneration money poured into them, so it’s no wonder that the public are being so vocal and bombarding me and other members of the Panel with what can loosely be described as hate mail. I have always received positive mail, but this eco towns programme has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Lay off me, please!

Our job on the Panel is as ’an independent group of people with expertise in various aspects of urban development. The Panel exists to encourage bidders to improve and develop their proposals to the point where they can be regarded as truly exemplary projects.’

We are being demanding in the firm belief that anything that does get built as a result of this eco towns process has to break the mould and become a focal point for the world’s urban design and sustainability community, in the way that Vauban in Freiburg and Hammarby Sjöstadt in Stockholm are cited internationally as exemplars. If none can trum p these European settlements, then I believe we shouldn’t deliver any, never mind ten.

All the Panel’s questions and demands do make me wonder, though, if we have a delivery system in place, a structure in this country that can result in an eco town ‘trumping’ what our European neighbours are coming up with. Most of our major developers are plcs with a primary commitment to the shareholders and the City, which demands a ‘return on shareholder value’ on behalf of the investor institutions. If there is any pressure on margins and a subsequent threat to shareholder returns, then the financial institutions are quick to advise investors to steer clear, and developer cash flow becomes difficult. In the current climate developers are being hit by a major slowdown in demand, higher borrowing costs, the Code for Sustainable Homes, commitments to affordable housing and being asked now to atone for years of chronic underinvestment in public-transport infrastructure going right back to the Beeching rail cuts in 1963.

The European models that deliver the places we fawn over are the work of developers who are in partnership with local, regional or national authorities, authorities who invest in the major infrastructure up front and leave the developers simply to deliver the housing, often in a joint venture agreement and invariably at margins that are fraction of the British model. Without the plc noose, the expensive borrowings, the often overbearing Section 106 agreements and without having to fund the transport and other infrastructure, the odds are stacked more in favour of something decent coming out of the process.

Our system cannot change overnight but the current severe difficulties that the industry faces, the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency and the ‘not for profit’ business models of many Registered Social Landlords all point to the possibility of a new way of offering places to live, work and play. I believe the current woes that the UK house-building industry is suffering will engender change that will benefit us all.

If we are going to end up with any eco towns that live up to the brand, then it may well take some of the bidders to come up with a paradigm shift in the delivery model – new business models that reflect the changing world that we live in.

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