UK: Eco Town Warriors

Last Updated: 3 December 2008

By Stephen Cirell and John Bennett

Most people now accept that climate change is a big issue for the UK which requires action at all levels of government. Against this background, the concept of eco towns should be very welcome. These are new settlements that the government proposed to be built by 2020, which whilst also providing much needed new housing for England would also assist with climate change targets for renewable energy. There would be incentives to be involved and local government would not have to do all of the work. In principle therefore, everyone should be happy.

The process the government came up with for eco towns was for applications to be invited, which would then be considered by a panel of 15 experts, chaired by John Walker, former chief executive of BURA. The Government announced in April that it had shortlisted 15 sites for consideration. The next stage is for the Government to publish a detailed appraisal of each bid.

However, the government appears to have misjudged the views of both local authorities and the people who live in the areas concerned on this initiative and it can only be concluded that it is now in serious trouble.

Local authorities believe that there is no viable reason why eco towns should be promoted outside of the current planning system which is local authority plan led. In other words, this is seen as central government riding roughshod over traditional areas of local authority responsibility. For the inhabitants of the areas, opposition ranges from pure "nimbyism", through to sensible and well argued reasoning as to why a particular site is not suitable.

The aggravation that the government has suffered in relation to eco towns has just gone up a notch due to a recent ruling in the High Court. The list of proposed eco towns included a site at Middle Quinton, between Stratford upon Avon and Evesham. This is on former MOD owned land that straddles the counties of Worcestershire and Warwickshire and is adjacent to an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the Cotswolds. This site has proved to be particularly controversial and the dispute over it has now threatened the entire eco towns policy.

This is because the objectors have brought Judicial Review proceedings against the Secretary of State and a judge confirmed on 11 September that they have an arguable case that merits a full JR hearing next year.

The case was brought by BARD (Better Accessible Responsible Development), which is a new group of residents in those two counties, set up to oppose the eco town in Middle Quinton; however, in its challenge of that eco town, it also seeks a declaration from the High Court that the government's whole eco towns policy is unlawful. BARD has stated that "large scale local planning decisions should be left to local authorities with direct accountability to the people whose lives they impact."

This case is likely to cause concern in DCLG due to the nature of the remedy it seeks ie the quashing of the whole programme. As such, it is likely to be keenly contested. In fact, this is not the only legal headache in government on this subject as it had already been well publicised that the LGA has also been advised by leading counsel that it has a viable case against the Government to challenge the process by judicial review. Concerns will persist about the timing of the High Court challenge and potential political regime change in the UK. At this stage it is probably too early to speculate but given the controversial nature of the proposals, how likely is it that the government will pursue proposals which are so unpopular, even if the JR challenge is unsuccessful, so close to a possible general election in 2010?

This is not a good state of affairs. Nick Raynsford argued in MJ of 11 September that the conflict between central and local government is not in the country's best interests. Local government and central government each has a role to play and should work in better harmony.

It must be a source of concern to many that the eco towns principle is sound in itself, the concerns being around the way it has been approached. However, such is the negative publicity around eco towns at both local and national level that one has to fear for their future. It is a matter of note that most of the objections have not been combined with a plan to improve the applications, merely to wreck them. If we end up back on the drawing board after another couple of years, no ones interests will have been served.

It is perhaps the fact that the policy is 'on the ropes' that some have openly pledged support. Last week a group of 21 charitable organisations, led by the Town and Country Planning Association and Shelter, signed a joint statement supporting the controversial plans.

It appears that the DCLG faces a parallel predicament to the authorities facing the LAML Judicial Review challenge; namely, whether to fight a lengthy and expensive court battle, or to take a different path. If the DCLG were to agree to amendments to the programme now, perhaps the programme can be put back on track without further conflict.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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