The number of Gordon Brown’s flagship eco-towns should be slashed by two thirds because most of the proposed schemes are not green enough, senior civil servants have warned.
They have advised ministers to cut the number from 10 to only two or three “exemplar” towns, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt.
The civil servants from the Department of Communities and Local Government said that most of the proposals being considered by the Government are not sufficiently environmentally-friendly and would be so damaging to the eco-town “brand” that they should not be allowed to go ahead.
One source close to the bidding process said: “You wonder why some of the bids were selected in the first place. Civil servants don’t want to advise ministers to go ahead with projects that are going to be a catastrophe. There are two or three in there that could proceed but some of the bids are just suicidal.”
However, the Prime Minister is understood to be applying pressure to push ahead with the policy in its entirety, setting the scene for a battle between Downing Street and Whitehall.
The source added that officials from the Department for Transport had expressed concerns about infrastructure issues, while civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are alarmed that some proposed towns, including at Ford, West Sussex, would be built on flood plains.
A pet project of Gordon Brown, and one of the first new policy programmes he announced after taking over from Tony Blair a year ago, eco-towns are designed to be low-energy, carbon-neutral developments constructed from “eco-friendly” materials.
Each town will contain between 5,000 and 20,000 homes and will be the first new towns built in Britain since the Sixties. Five will be built by 2016, with another five completed by 2020.
A government announcement on the policy is expected this week. It will give an update on the remaining bids and show that three developers have now officially withdrawn their schemes and that a further proposal, for a town in the Leeds area, is still without a site or developer.
Last week, Tesco hinted that it would withdraw its plans for an 8,000-home eco-town at Hanley Grange, Cambridgeshire, after the medical charity The Wellcome Trust refused to sell it a crucial piece of land that was needed to proceed.
The likely withdrawal of the proposal by Jarrow Investments, which this newspaper revealed was a front for Britain’s biggest retailer, would be the fourth in a series of departures from the original 15-strong shortlist. It has also emerged that at least one more developer does not yet own the land it wants to develop. The Coltishall Group, which wants to build a 5,000-home eco-town in Norfolk, has not yet been told if the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will sell the 625-acre site, which it bought off the Ministry of Defence. The MoJ plans to build a 500-place prison there.
Another source involved with the selection process said that civil servants were now going back to developers who originally submitted bids but did not make it on to the final shortlist, in order to boost numbers, in case Gordon Brown refuses to back down.
The source said: “That would be an insurance policy, to make sure there were ten. Some of those shortlisted are now clearly duds, so they have to have more up their sleeve that are not as obviously embarrassing.”
Last night, Grant Shapps, the shadow housing minister, said: “Ministers have taken a good concept of building new green housing and have managed to destroy their own project by trampling over local democracy and systematically downgrading the green credentials of eco-towns to the point where they’ll be less environmentally friendly than all other housing built at the same time.”
The government believes the new towns will combat the growing housing crisis in an environmentally friendly way. But the policy has come up against many high profile critics, including Lord Rogers, the Labour peer and former government adviser on cities, who branded eco-towns as “one of the biggest mistakes government can make”.
Gideon Amos, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, said it was important to build as many eco-towns as was feasible. He said: “The credit crisis is leading to an even greater demand for affordable homes – we need as many eco-towns to go forward as can meet the very challenging standards we are calling for.”
A spokesperson for the Communities and Local Government department said: “Our position throughout this process has been that we will shortlist up to ten potential sites for eco-towns – and we are making no change to our policy.”
ECO-TOWNS: IN THE RUNNING
Bordon, Hants 5,500-home scheme considered a good option by the Government and environmental groups
Ford, West Sussex 5,000 homes planned for a former airfield. High-profile opponents include the television presenter Ben Fogle
Imerys site, Cornwall 5,000 homes on former clay pits. Only proposal in the South-West
Pennbury, Leics Three blueprints for an eco-town of up to 15,000 homes at Leicester airport
Rossington, South Yorks Scaled back from 15,000 homes to 5,000
Rushcliffe, Notts Recent proposal for 6,000 homes, backed by Crown Estates and Ministry of Defence
Weston Otmoor, Oxon Up to 15,000 homes opposed by Tony Henman, father of former tennis player Tim
Marston Vale, Beds Up to 15,000 homes planned despite withdrawal of second scheme
Middle Quinton, Warwicks Proposal for 6,000 homes. Opposed by the actors Helen Mirren and John Nettles
Hanley Grange, Cambs Facing the axe after the Wellcome Trust refused to sell 270 acres of land. Had recently increased from 8,000 homes to 13,000
Coltishall, Norfolk Government owns the site and is refusing to say whether it will release the land
Elsenham, Essex Under constant review and abandoning it is an option
Leeds city region Has no site or developer
Curborough, Staffs Formerly a 5,000-home development
Manby, Lincs 5,000 homes were originally planned
New Marston, Beds Up to 15,000 homes had been planned for same site as Marston Vale
By Vikki Miller
20 July 2008