A few months ago Mike Denham wondered, on the Burning Our Money blog, whether the new eco-towns would be "The Crap Towns Of Tomorrow". After all, the last generation of government sponsored new towns hardly matched up to the initial, idealistic visions. Even the relatively successful schemes like Harlow are now themselves candidates for "regeneration". The less successful new towns have become bywords for urban blight.
Classic mistakes are already beginning to be made. On Monday the BBC reported that those living in or entering the new eco-towns will be kept to a 15mph speed limit. Caroline Flint says that she will "make no apology for setting the bar as high as possible" because there is "a unique opportunity to deliver a programme which will genuinely revolutionise the way people live".
This attempt to use housing policy not to deliver the kind of lifestyle people want but the kind that Ministers think they should want is not just unpleasant and dictatorial, it is almost invariably a dismal failure. Harlow's town centre is in need of regeneration after 60 years, while older centres have been well maintained over centuries, because it couldn't attract the shoppers and other ordinary people whose patronage provides the economic incentive to keep a place looking pleasant. Similarly, the eco-towns will only be a success if ordinary people want to live there.
Outside of major cities a heavy majority of people drive to work. As there is no way for the government to make the eco-towns immune to the impracticalities of public transport and only a limited range of jobs will exist in towns with populations of 5-20,000 residents of eco-towns will drive to work as well. A 15mph speed limit - not just in the centre of town but also on approach roads - will be a endless source of frustration and make eco-towns an undesirable place to live.
While shortages of housing supply will mean that someone will live in the eco-towns, if it is only those with no other choice - who leave when they can - the new towns will quickly fall into unloved neglect. Most of those who profess to care so much about the environment will stay in market towns built millenia ago. It is easy for Flint to 'set the bar high' if she isn't going to be the one facing the frustration of trundling along at half the national urban centre speed limit.
Eco-towns are likely to prove expensive - both financially and in terms of destruction of the natural environment they are built on top of. Unless they are stopped or seriously rethought that cost might be paid just in order to create new urban planning disasters and, as Mike predicted, "The Crap Towns Of Tomorrow". Politicians much prefer the noisy idealism of forcing people to walk to work and 'eco-towns' to carefully thinking through the possible unintended consequences of their actions. Housing policy needs to be brought closer to ordinary people or we will keep seeing the same mistakes being made, decade after decade.