Young families need decent homes. First-time buyers should be given a chance to buy, without needing a fantasy salary increase. Single people, key workers, the elderly – all these people want and deserve a home in a place they like and where they might choose to put down roots.We have a growing population, people are getting married later in life, people are living longer, there is net inward migration we simply need more homes. I want to hear what these people have to say about being given the chance to live in a well-designed, attractive place.
At the moment, the strident voices of those opposed to eco-towns are using every trick in the book to win attention. But what about the people eco-towns are being planned to provide homes for? We need to listen to them too. I understand that for decades this country has been particularly good at delivering great new places to live but as chair of Building For Life I can see that there is a movement towards liveability , quality and sustainability and The Eco Town programme is an opportunity to set examples that could start to put an end to isolated identikit housing developments in unsuitable locations away from all facilities.
I am part of a 15-strong panel advising the Government on the design and sustainability elements of eco-towns. This independent and questioning panel has been deliberately set up by the government to challenge and push the consortiums bidding to deliver eco towns so that they really do deliver the best possible communities for those who live there. I spend a lot of my working time designing homes and putting the building blocks in place so that vibrant new communities can develop– and so I have strong views. Getting on the housing ladder early is now almost impossible. The average age for a first-time buyer is 34. And mortgages now require ten times the earnings of the average first-time buyer – and that could be a young family or a single person. The eco-town plan is designed to create a workable template so that a few exemplar developments around the country can inform the wider industry how to deliver more homes at affordable prices across England and improve quality of life in a sustainable way for the 21st century.
My role as an adviser is to look at all the applications for the shortlist of eco-towns and ensure that the plans provide for good transport, shops, schools, jobs and leisure and don’t impact negatively on existing communities To ensure that the plans allow for 30 to 50 per cent affordable housing. And to ensure that the plans pioneer sustainable environmentally-friendly living. The Government has already warned developers that if they can’t meet these standards, they’re out. We need to create places where people can be happy and enjoy life – where there is space to walk the dog, kick a ball around and walk your child to school. It is my job, and that of others on the panel, to push developers to make sure that this happens.
We have got to get this right as the first eco-towns will be pioneering projects to ensure that all the ingredients are in place and deliver what people want; blueprints for the future.
We also need to make sure that people understand what is meant by “eco-towns”. Most people accept that more homes need to be built – and it makes absolute sense to do our best to make them as environmentally friendly as possible. In short, homes that don’t cost the earth to run and are designed to deal with climate change; schools, shops, businesses and community facilities with jobs; places to go, a sense of place and a community spirit. This means a mix of people – young families, singles, older families, downsizers and the elderly – from all walks of life. We are talking about creating towns for around 5-10,000 families; and maybe two or three bigger communities for up to 15,000 families – about the size of Morecambe where I was born.
In many ways what we are doing is nothing new. The Victorians created some outstanding new towns and cities because new homes were needed then, just as they are now. They put in place transport links, schools, public buildings and parks. I am working on a scheme in Dartford where getting the infrastructure in place first was vital. We now have a free bus service that links up the entire local area and a fast train link to St Pancras will be opened next year. We must ensure that eco-towns also relate to towns and cities nearby.They also need to join up economically so that businesses can look to the new communities as places for expansion, creating jobs and an entrepreneurial spirit. And many other countries around the world are also looking at building eco-towns and cities for their citizens.
But more than anything, we have to remember why the eco-towns plan was created in the first place and keep that centre stage – to build homes for people who need and deserve them. And, I would suggest, we need to listen to what these people have to say about the homes they want and not just let the naysayers dominate. Whilst I realise that “nimbyism “ is a powerful movement , often soundly based on the housing industrys mistakes , a great development or two can start to change perception and help us to catch up with our European neighbours where great placemaking and precedents often leads to new developments being welcomed.