‘Eco-Towns’? OK, Let’s Measure Them.

Eco-towns? OK, let's measure them

Charles Clover
The Daily Telegraph
Aprol 4, 2008

(Charles Clover's weekly column takes an inside look at the environment)

Unless the inhabitants of the 15 proposed “eco towns” selected by the Government yesterday are to be wafted to work on magic carpets and take their holidays on bicycles without crossing the Channel, the reality is that these settlements are going to add to the country's demand for energy, its greenhouse gas emissions and its use of water.

The fact remains that it would be more eco-friendly not to build these eco-towns at all.

That may not be an option, given indigenous population growth, boosted by record immigration, but it is the first reality check out of many that will be needed if these proposed settlements are to do more than provide a spurious green gloss on the inevitable.

What is an eco-town? No one yet knows. It did not inspire confidence to hear that the Government is going to take another six months to devise a definition – the planning guidance against which such settlements will be judged. It is already clear, though, that eco-towns are really new towns by another name.

New towns, rather than increments to existing settlements, take us back to Abercrombie's plans for reducing over-crowding in London after the war, and to the new towns of the 1950s and 1960s. The case for building new towns has never gone away, but the success rate is mixed. A yardstick as to whether people will actually want to live in eco-towns must be how much green space they provide.

There were things to be welcomed in Caroline Flint's announcement such as no new towns on green belt and the rejection of that old chestnut, Micheldever in Hampshire. But some of the proposed eco-towns are stinkers – in green fields, isolated and in need of new infrastructure.

The ambition has to be welcomed that these houses will be built initially to be low-carbon (this means a 25 per cent improvement on 2006 standards by 2010 and a 44 per cent improvement by 2013) and eventually to be zero-carbon. But it is well to recognise that achieving this represents the biggest challenge the building industry faces this century.

The only way it can be achieved – as a recent collaboration between academics, the National Trust and Ms Flint's department at Stamford Brook showed – is not only by setting energy standards but by ruthlessly testing the homes afterwards to see if they have been achieved, then rectifying mistakes.

Whether our volume builders can do this at the same time as providing high volumes of desirable, affordable housing remains to be seen.

Remember the Inuit

It is harvest time in the Canadian Arctic, when the fluffies are lined up and exploited disgracefully. It is the time when those cruel economic realists, the animal welfare groups, descend on hapless donors and torture them with pictures of furry seal cubs being clubbed to death.

Every year another batch of well-meaning politicians and celebrities are ushered over to stay in smart hotels and be helicoptered out to the ice to see the slaughter. They come back to Europe calling for the seal cull to be banned, which keeps the donations flowing in to the coffers of organisations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

We must not forget, though, that this annual dipping of wallets depends on continuing ignorance in temperate latitudes about the traditions and necessities of the frozen north. A delegation including Paul Okalik, premier of Nunavut, the self-governing Inuit territory, was over here trying to tell the other side of the story this week. He got short shrift.

The point Mr Okalik made was that in the high Arctic there are no gardens with vegetables, no crops other than what nature provides on or under the ice. About five per cent of the commercial seal cull is done by the Inuit who also kill seals for their own food and to feed their remaining teams of dogs.

Back in 1983, an EU directive banned trade in harp seal products. It was not intended to kill the market the Inuit depended upon, but it did. Inuit culture, which defines itself by hunting, suffered a disaster. The suicide rate tripled and remains the highest in the world. Greenpeace eventually apologised to the Inuit for the genuine hardship imposed on them.

That is why calls for EU trade sanctions against Canada over its seal cull are ignorant and irresponsible. There will always be legitimate questions about how humanely the cull is conducted and exactly how many harp and hooded seals should be exploited for their pelts, blubber and meat.

But also to be considered are the Inuit and other communities on the bare coasts of the Arctic with few other options. Their needs are too often forgotten.


Charles Clover's weekly column takes an inside look at the environment
Previous Earthlog – 27th March