Eco Towns in the UK

 You would be hard pushed in our current times to not be aware of the debates surrounding environmental change and the efforts of governments and individuals to encourage sustainable living.  The recent announcement by the British Government of four new eco towns to be developed around the UK creating 1000’s of ‘carbon neutral’ homes is a good example of investment in this area.  Surely a popular move, great for the environment and a vote winner?  But has this really been thought through and what are the cost implications, and more importantly is there a better way to achieve carbon neutral housing in our communities?

Looking at one location; St Austell, Cornwall – a few unique factors are present which need to be considered alongside these plans.  Currently in Cornwall there is a huge gulf between income levels and affordable housing.  Affordable housing is one of the key elements that will help sustain local communities in Cornwall.  It is hard to see how this site will be able to be affordable without very heavy subsidy; eco homes are more expensive to develop and the area for the scheme needs substantial investment to create an attractive living environment.  

A few forward thinking developers in Cornwall are presently offering eco homes on the market; will these new eco towns make their efforts over priced?  Surely it would be more effective to incentivize developers and individuals to use eco building techniques on any new house and development.  By subsidizing solar energy, wind energy, rain water harvesting and similar product and techniques they will be more affordable to the mass market and used more widely. 

To achieve carbon neutral housing a number of targets have to be achieved.  Presently for a housing development to achieve this status they will be rewarded by saving themselves considerable sums of money through Stamp Duty Land Tax payments, a strong incentive for any canny developer.  However there are problems that can rear their ugly heads as realised by Simon Williams from Percy Williams and Sons, developers of eco homes in Cornwall:

“The houses at Fairglen in Hayle with their huge levels of insulation and energy-efficient features are not actually zero-carbon, as there will inevitably be energy used for domestic appliances, lighting and other day-to-day uses, this can only be achieved by increasing the on-site generation. For Fairglen the economic option would have been a wind-turbine, but the sheltered location of the site precluded this option. So to achieve this we came up with the idea of purchasing some generating capacity at an established or new wind farm elsewhere, and passing this asset to the owners. We could have done this with the money saved on Stamp Duty Land Tax payments which would have been zero rated had we achieved zero carbon. However, we were barred from doing this by the regulations, which state that the generation would have to be ‘hard-wired’ to the development and not just owned by it in order to qualify. This in spite of the fact that a high percentage would then have been sold back and exported into the national grid, a great solution for the environment as a whole”.

Encouraging eco houses is essential and these should be as close to zero-carbon as possible. However, as can be seen in the example above the legislation made it impossible for the developers to achieve the carbon neutral status.  Their wind sheltered area did not lend itself kindly to wind generation.  Does this mean that all new developments will need to be at the top of hills so that they can benefit from increased wind-speed for generation?  In spite of the fact that they will lose more heat up there and need correspondingly more energy. Why does the generating of power need to be ‘hard wired’ to the house?  Any energy created in a green way surely is good for the environment as a whole.

Returning to our case study of St Austell Eco Towns, many questions remain unanswered.  We are yet to see how these eco homes will truly impact on the local communities and how much investment will be needed from the government to make them affordable.  Present legislation in the area of eco developments and carbon neutral housing needs to be reassessed, to provide practical solutions for eco house building.  Ultimately we need to change the mindset of all house builders and show them that building an eco home will not be a pain in the wallet.  Perhaps this is where the government should be directing their investment and not into grand scale vote winning schemes as seen in these new eco towns.

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