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Battle lines drawn over eco-towns

27 February 08 05:10 GMT
Jeremy Cooke
Rural affairs correspondent, BBC News

Communities are bracing themselves for the announcement of a government shortlist of sites which could be locations for so-called "eco-towns".

Ministers say they want to build 10 of the green developments, the largest of which would provide 15,000 to 20,000 new homes built to state-of-the-art environmental standards.

Officials say the towns should be "zero carbon" developments and exemplars in one area of sustainability, such as energy production or waste disposal.

They also say 30 to 40% of each eco-town should be allocated as affordable housing.

The successful applications will receive an undisclosed level of central government funding, as well as help with meeting the requirements of local planning regulations.

But there is a huge controversy about where the eco-towns will be built.

The government says it favours "brownfield" sites.

But many of the 60-odd applications from developers who want to build these new communities are in places that look like open countryside.

Many environmental groups and local people say that eco-towns are in fact an environmental disaster.

Take, for example, the site around Leicester airfield, just south of the city. It's the home of a flying club, with a small tower/clubhouse and runways.

Lapwings are among the rare birds that use the place as a sanctuary.

The airfield is dwarfed by surrounding farmland that makes up a site of some 4,000 acres.

The owner of the land, the Co-op, says it wants to build an eco-town here with up to 20,000 homes.

The local communities, small villages which overlook the site, have reacted with horror.

They say if the proposals become a reality, their quiet country life will be transformed by having thousands of new eco-homes on their doorstep.

Residents have formed an action group and hundreds of people have taken part in protests against the development.

Birds of prey

One town that may be swamped if the eco-town gets the go-ahead, is the pretty village of Little Stretton.

Outside their home, Steve Sibley and his 10-year-old son Joe made their feelings clear.

Joe is worried about wildlife: "There are badger setts and great crested newts and things like that. There are birds of prey.

"We've seen sparrowhawks and barn owls. And there's a brook with kingfishers."

His father continues: "What's eco-friendly about building roads, building houses, destroying all of the local habitat?

"Just the idea of an 'eco-town' - I just don't know where they're getting it from."

The proposer of this development, the Co-op, sees it all very differently.

In a statement it says: "It is disappointing that some people have decided to oppose this even before we have had the opportunity to share our ideas with them and evidently without a clear understanding of what an eco-town is.

"It represents a step change in community design and development in this country and we've put forward a strong submission which exceeds government criteria and has wide-ranging benefits for people living in local communities and beyond.

"The growing housing shortage and climate change are two issues which society cannot afford to ignore."

This site in Leicestershire is just one of the dozens now being considered by the government.

Shortlist soon

A shortlist of 15 or so will be released soon and then finally whittled down to 10. In many of the proposed eco-town locations there is bitter local opposition.

But housing minister Caroline Flint insists that the eco-towns will set new standards of excellence.

She told the BBC: "These eco-towns will not only provide for local communities, they will be a showcase of what is possible nationally and also internationally.

"Eco-towns are more than just homes for people, important though that is.

"They do have to demonstrate that they will provide public transport and how they will be both a living community and a working community as well."

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