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PR 18 - Eco-towns must not become "Soulless Stepford Wives Suburbia"

03 April 2008

The Government risks creating \"soulless Stepford Wives suburbia\" if it fails to adequately link new eco-towns with existing communities, according to the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).

The warning comes after the Government released the initial shortlist of preferred locations for the towns. The film Stepford Wives was shot in 1975 and remade in 2004 starring Nicole Kidman. It highlighted the goings on in a particularly \"perfect\" but sterile, newly built and isolated suburb.  

The RTPI is calling on the Government to ensure the eco-towns finally selected for development have strong public transport links to other major metropolitan centres, provide sufficient local jobs to support the majority of the town's population and contain desirable places to spend recreation time within the town. It warns that failure to meet these criteria will lead to the creation of soulless, isolated towns and will severely undermine the environmental credentials of the developments because they will then encourage more extensive car use.

The RTPI is encouraged by the Government's commitment to the preparation of a national spatial strategy for eco-towns as part of the four stage decision making process (1). However, it warns that the Government must not use the strategy as a tool to arbitrarily put towns in inappropriate areas. The RTPI believes that integrating new towns into existing communities is vital and that any national strategy must ensure that local communities are given a strong voice in the decision making process so that their concerns are appropriately considered.

RTPI Director of Policy Rynd Smith said: \"The Government needs to avoid creating soulless Stepford Wives suburbia. We don't want towns that are deserted during week days and evacuated on weekends as people drive miles out of town to work, shop and relax. Transport links and recreation areas need to be available before people move in otherwise they get in the habit of going elsewhere and that can be hard to break.

\"Planning a country as complex as England requires national policy to deliver national priorities but while we welcome the Government's commitment to a national spatial strategy for eco-towns it should not be used as a vehicle with which to ride rough-shot over local communities. The public must retain a strong voice in the decision making process. Nor should the strategy be invented on the hoof. What is needed is a clear and coherent vision which informs the decision making process, not a quick and dirty document drawn up for the sake of expediency.

\"The acknowledgement that a national approach to major planning issues is required is encouraging. Hopefully the Government now understands why we have been advocating the creation of national spatial policy.\"

The RTPI has also sought the views of senior planners from across the country. Their initial reactions are below.

RTPI President Janet O'Neill said: \"The placement of eco-towns has the potential to create a considerable amount of controversy and we have already seen vocal protests organised against a number of the proposals. The Government must make sure that local communities have access to the decision making process and that their concerns are fairly weighted against other considerations.\"

Chris Shepley, whose former roles include Chief Planner Inspector, Chief Executive of the Planning Inspectorate and RTPI President said: "The scope for a bit of fresh thinking which eco towns give us is good. We should welcome innovation - there isn't enough of it. And despite the flak, the Government seem to have done a decent job so far in weeding out the no-hopers. But what matters now is that the favoured fifteen go through a tough examination and consultation process, before anyone thinks of sticking a spade in the ground".

Stephen Gleave, Managing Director of Taylor Young, said: \"Ecotowns must be kept in perspective. They will provide a tiny fraction of the new homes to be built over the next 10 years. Ambitions are high and exemplar best practice is welcome. My concern is that we need high standards everywhere not just in middle class middle England utopias. The real danger is that Ecotowns will divert intellectual effort, giving windfall commercial opportunity to those who have had their eyes on Greenfield sites for years.

\"The real challenge for Government is to rebuild and reinforce existing sustainable cities, towns and infrastructure for existing communities before indulging in headline grabbing projects.\"

Paul Tomlinson, Senior Technical Manager at the Centre for Sustainability (C4S) TRL Limited and Leader of the Environmental Planning and Protection Network, said: \"The Ecotowns offer an opportunity to deliver housing that has a smaller eco-footprint than existing urban areas, however, the approach is not without risks. Apart from the environmental change of the chosen sites there is a need to consider the impact of the communities on the surrounding natural and human environment, and their transport and other health and community infrastructure needs.  

\"Given that it will take many years for these communities to be established, it is important to see their effects upon sustainable development during three phases: Inception; Prior to the achievement of critical population thresholds and then in the longer term. It is disappointing that apart from zero carbon each town only needs to be an examplar in only one other area of environmental sustainability. No reference is given to economic, social or resource sustainability. It will be important that the sustainability appraisals are rigorous and consider the community, health, resource, transport and many other issues as well as issues of spatial design, energy and greenhouse gas emissions.\"

For further information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Dale Atkinson, RTPI Communications Manager, 0207 929 9479

Notes to Editors:

The CLG's four stage decision making process involves:

Stage One: Three month consultation on preliminary views on eco-town benefits and these shortlisted locations;

Stage Two: Further consultation this summer on a Sustainability Appraisal, which provides a more detailed assessment of these locations, and a draft Planning Policy Statement.

Stage Three: A decision on the final list of locations with the potential to be an eco-town and the publication of a final Planning Policy Statement, later this year.

Stage Four: Like any other proposed development, individual schemes in these locations will need to submit planning applications which will be decided on the merits of the proposal.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI)

The RTPI is a dynamic organisation leading the way in the creation of places that work now and in the future. We understand that just as people develop places, so places develop people.  We are committed to the enhancement of our natural and human environment, using spatial planning to manage competing pressures on our built environments and the very real effects on our space.  Through our 20,000 members, we constantly seek to create areas and places in which people want to live and work.

For further general information, visit the RTPI website at: www.rtpi.org.uk

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