'Secret' eco-town plans spark protest

Government will soon unveil 10 sites nationwide

Controversial plans for a string of eco-towns have sparked nationwide protests. Demonstrations against the developments have begun two weeks before Housing Minister Caroline Flint is due to announce the 10 locations she has chosen for the first green communities.

Local groups are complaining that they have been kept in the dark about proposals to create the towns, some of which involve building 20,000 homes as well as schools and roads, although developers have already submitted their plans to the government.

Ministers want to provide thousands of carbon-neutral homes in towns that will have up to 40 per cent social housing to make up for the severe national shortage of cheaper properties.

But protests have already begun in many areas, with the protesters signing petitions and organising marches. Although ministers decided last year not to make public the full list of applicants, individual schemes for greenfield sites, including Derbyshire's national forest and a town on the edge of the Cotswolds, are now coming to light.

In Stoughton, Leicestershire, yesterday, protesters held a march against the Co-operative Group, the insurance and consumer group which is planning to build Pennbury eco-town with 15,000 homes. In Derbyshire, where the Grovewood development is planned for 5,700 homes, retired headteacher Andrew Otway is helping put together an online petition to Downing Street. He said: 'There has been such secrecy... The proposed development is in the heart of the national forest, the lungs of the Midlands.'

Flint said: 'There is a rigorous process for the selection of bids and only the best will succeed. They must meet tough tests, proving they make best use of brownfield land, safeguard wildlife and habitat areas and provide low and zero carbon technologies and good public transport systems.'

But the Council for the Protection of Rural England is unconvinced and is asking the government to clarify how it will pick the 10 sites. Its planning expert, Kate Gordon, points out that, once the government has put its seal of approval on places, it will be far harder for local authorities to object and justify taking on expensive legal counsel to fight the plans. 'We support the idea of eco-towns, but they must be in the right place and developed in the right way. The most sustainable approach would be to regenerate existing quarters of old towns,' said Gordon.

The Wildlife Trusts, a voluntary body, is dismayed at the lack of attention being given to ecology. Its chief executive, Stephanie Hilborne, said: 'The government's proposals make a mockery of the term '"eco-town". We need to see the planning system being used to avoid insensitive development and restore and create new wildlife habitats.'

Questions are being asked about the involvement of Tony Blair and his friend, Lord Leitch. The former Prime Minister is an environmental adviser to Zurich Financial Services, parent company of Eagle Star, the developer proposing a 12,500-home town in Hampshire. Eagle Star, which could make up to £1bn from the eco-town proposal at Micheldever Station, is also sponsoring the government's regional seminars on eco-towns.

Leitch, the former chairman of Zurich, is credited with having persuaded Blair to join his group as an adviser. Eagle Star has denied that either man will have any role over the eco-town proposal. However, campaigners want assurances from ministers that they have not been involved in lobbying for the scheme.


Jo Revill and Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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