Councils finding themselves under pressure to grant planning permission for eco towns are right to be suspicious of an initiative which is so closely linked to the Government push for record levels of house building. While West Midlands local authorities are already being told, against their wishes, to plan for some 420,000 new homes by 2027, they are now also faced with the possibility of two entirely new towns, supposedly exemplars of sustainability, in locations that have previously been ruled out for large-scale development.
Both proposals - at Curborough on the outskirts of Lichfield, and Long Marston near Stratford-upon-Avon - would be highly unlikely to be given any more than cursory consideration by the respective planning authorities if it were not for the fact that the projects have Government support.
The reasons for areluctance to embrace eco towns are not difficult to see, with the Curborough proposal representing little more than a thinly-disguised attempt to expand the city of Lichfield, while the Long Marston application exposes the site's remoteness, absence of nearby employment and lack of any decent road links.
Research by Warwickshire County Council suggests that the Long Marston scheme has been ill thought out and would not nearly be as sustainable as the Government would like to think. According to the Housing Minister, the new eco towns must be carbon-neutral with at least half of residents not requiring cars, but it is difficult to see at this stage where the public transport or jobs would come from for Long Marston's 12,000 or so inhabitants, who it is feared would resort to travelling by car to find work in Stratford or other south Warwickshire towns.
A picture is beginning to emerge of Government-imposed settlements, not dissimilar to the new towns of the 1950s and 60s, but dressed up under the all-embracing and largely meaningless promise of greenness and self-sufficiency. What, it might be asked, is going to be sustainable about development of an unprecedented scale in the Warwickshire and Staffordshire countryside?
The biggest fear of all is that councils will find themselves powerless to prevent the rise of the eco town, even if chosen sites are deemed unsuitable by local planning committees. Government representatives have much work to do to convince local authorities across the country that promises of sustainability are not being used as a smokescreen to justify further intrusion into rural areas and to meet national house building targets.