I’ve had an interesting few weeks sitting on the Eco Towns Challenge Panel. The proposed Eco Town programme has naturally caused a major outbreak (nay plague) of “nimbyism”. Many of the new towns and settlements the Britain commissioned since the successes of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City are having to have regeneration money lavished on them so it’s no wonder that the public are being so vocal. This is the official description of The Eco Towns Challenge Panel…
“ 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, which fit well within their surroundings, demonstrate innovative approaches to sustainable development and represent a ‘step change’ beyond what would currently be regarded as best practice”
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 worlds urban design and sustainability community in the way that Vauban in Freiberg and Hammerby Sjostadt in Stockholm are cited internationally as exemplars.
Here are a few of the questions we are asking and challenges that we are setting to the bidders.
- Who holds the vision? How do you intend to ensure that development does not become a pale imitation of its potential?
- What are you taking from other national and international examples of best practice sustainable place-making?
- Who will want to live there?
- Why would I want to move there?
- Who will be the first residents; how will they attract a pioneering new community?
- What will be exemplary about your development?
- How will your develop set the course for future development and positively influence what can be achieved for new development more generally and the existing building stock?
- How are you working in the public interest?
- What would you need to do to ensure that there is no net increase on the surrounding road network as a result of the eco-town and therefore no road building/major improvements required?
- How will your encourage a substantially increased proportion of journeys on foot, by cycle and by public transport?
- What modal split in terms of transport are you aiming for and how to do intend to deliver that?
- Describe an overview of your proposed public transport network both strategic and local – e.g. in terms of routes, frequencies?
- What arrangements are you considering in terms of long term financial provision and the governance of transport?
- How do you believe you can make public transport the mode of choice over the car especially for commuting out of the town?
- How do you think this town will be an exemplar for sustainable transport?
- How robust are your plans against oil prices rising to and staying permanently at $200/barrel, or $300/barrel?
- What commuting patterns are you assuming for residents/employees in this development? How will you minimise car commuting?
- What facilities/services/employment are you planning for on site and what is the sequencing of this? What impact are you expecting this on-site provision to have on travel?
- What public transport provision are you assuming in your plans, who will deliver this and who will pay for it? What impacts are you expecting this provision to have on CO2 and other environmental concerns? If bus based, what action are you proposing to lift patronage by those with access to a car beyond average UK levels?
- How are you going to ensure that cycling take up is at Dutch rather than UK levels?
- How will you ensure that you create places where people want to live and which are sensitive to the local surroundings?
- How will you combine high environmental standards with high standards of design? What are the challenges?
- How adaptable to changing circumstances will the development be?
Waste and resource management
- How will occupants be encouraged to use resources more efficiently (e.g. recycling, or reduced water consumption)?
- Have you considered evidence of good practice in relation to your development that would ensure high standards of waste and resource management?
- Which environmental technologies will you make use of? Will these be exemplary?
- How do these make best use of the site’s natural assets and opportunities?
- How much energy will buildings use; and what are the challenges of meeting energy targets?
- How much energy would such buildings use per square metre and year?
- How much CO2 would such buildings emit per square metre and year?
- How will you create a vibrant community that ensures people of all ages and those with disabilities can be active within the community?
- How will your development be designed to encourage Eco-town communities to be active and choose healthy living choices?
- How can your development proposals be adapted to improve the employment potential of the local area?
- What is being done to help spark entrepreneurial activity?
- What kinds of employment will there be and how will you attract investment?
- What kind of retail provision will there be?
All these questions and demands do make me wonder though if we have a delivery system, 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 PLC’s with a primary commitment to the shareholders and “the city” which demand a “ return on shareholder value” on behalf of the investor institutions and should there be any pressure on margins and subsequent threat to shareholder returns then the financial institutions are quick to advise investors to steer clear and cash flow of the developers 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 to now 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 that we fawn over are delivered by developers who are working with local, regional or national authorities, authorities who invest in the major infrastructure upfront and leave the developers to simply 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 cant 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 RSL’s all point to the possibility of a new way of delivering places to live, work and play.
If we are going to end up with 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.