They were meant to be an optimistic initiative that would steal a march on the Tory party, but Gordon Brown's idea is now as unpopular as the PM himself. The plan to create 10 new 'green' towns across England that meet high environmental standards was at the heart of Brown's address to the Labour conference last September. Each town would have 5,000-20,000 homes, 30% of which would be affordable. All would have carbon-zero status and use the latest in eco-design. Since then, three of the 16 shortlisted contenders have dropped out, and others are being opposed by such motley campaigners such as Germaine Greer, Lord Richard Rogers and Duncan Goodhew. Ministers have postponed publication of the final shortlist from October to early next year, and there's speculation that the target of 10 may be lowered.
The Government says the delay is to allow more time to consider revised entries. The Department for Communities and Local Government remains gung-ho. 'The proof will be in the pudding,' it says, and most schemes are going ahead. Bill Dunster, designer of the UK's largest carbon-neutral development BedZED, thinks the eco-town project a good thing. 'It's very clever,' he told The Times, 'because it creates a market for carbon-zero homes. Left alone, housebuilders would move slowly to meet the new green housing standards. It's like rocket-fuel to the cause.'
THE STRAIGHT TALK
Architect Rogers has called eco-towns 'one of the biggest mistakes the Government can make', and the Local Government Association dubs them the 'eco-slums of the future'. Protesters view Government policy as a diktat that cuts across the planning system. 'We support the aspirations of eco-towns,' says Kate Gordon, senior planning officer at the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, 'just not how the policy is being carried out. Without co-ordination, the feet will be going one way and the head the other.' There are worries that the new towns will be sited in areas lacking jobs and infrastructure.
Designer Wayne Hemingway told the Guardian: 'If they are not good enough, the Government should say no. The idea was to get 10 eco-towns away, but if we could get one brilliant one away that would be fine.' Post-war new towns have a poor reputation in the UK, so people are bound to be sniffy. But with an emphasis on good architecture and high environmental standards, these just might be homes worth living in.