Friday, 30 May 2008

More on Ford Eco-town, following the opening of the Inquiry on 27th May 2008.

Presentations given by the Ford Airfield Vision Group and the Ford Enterprise Hub at the start of Arun DC’s inquiry gave a good outline of their plans for the Ford Eco-town. The Trust does have issues with the proposals - see later on in this post - but the proposers are sincere people with a clear belief in the idea they are promoting. Several key aspects can be highlighted from their proposals:

The development aims to be at least carbon-neutral. Ideas are for passive solar hearting by utilising south facing designs, photo-voltaic cells, solar panels and a possible hydro system based on a sea lagoon created from managed retreat of the coast. There is also a proposal for power generation from a hydro system under the bridge of a new Arundel bypass. These ideas, plus the energy from waste facility below should make the site a net exporter of energy.

The plan is to make maximum use of waste recovery, utilising a facility already on site. There are also plans for an energy from waste recovery facility. The claim is that with these systems there should be no off-site refuse trips.

A sophisticated system of grey water recycling, water treatment and aquifer re-charge should result in a very low water-use foot-print, indeed they are aiming for “water-neutrality”. Water run-off from the development area will drain into canals (one a renovated existing canal, plus other new water-courses), and these will form the core of green corridors, with new habitat for wildlife meandering through the built development.

There are ideas for a central area of greenspace, connected by green corridors to neighbourhood greens and linking with the canals. A major feature will be an area of managed coastal retreat alongside the river Arun where coastal and salt marsh vegetation will be created, perhaps in a sea lagoon as part of a tidal hydro-power system. The new coastal marsh, canals and water inflow from water off the Downs will make a diversity of habitats that could be very beneficial for the local environment. This could be seen as a prime example of how nature development in an area can not only improve biodiversity but also provide services to the area in terms of flood amelioration, treatment of water run-off, amenity, access and even power generation.

Local food
Some mention was made of encouraging the use of gardens and allotments for the growing of food, and the use of local retail outlets for the sale of local food. A good principle but the Town will result in a net loss of good agricultural land.

There are plans to develop the railway station on a new site and to integrate this with bus routes, cycle ways and walking routes. The aim is to very considerably reduce car dependency and there is a vision to create a District-wide modal shift in favour of rail transport. The Eco-town will, however, be used as an excuse to develop roads in the area, especially an Arundel bypass, and where the proposed bypass crosses the river Arun there are ideas to develop some form of hydro power station.

Good ideas, but questions remain -

Much of this (except the road development) sounds quite good, indeed if your aim is to build an Eco-town then this is a pretty good way to go about it.

First, there are a whole range of questions regarding the process, and these are probably best targeted at government rather than the individual Eco-town proposals:

  • Why is it that the standards for Eco-towns are not the basic minimum for all new development?

  • After years of debating about the SE Plan and levels of regional development, why is it that Eco-towns seem to have come in as an extra idea separate to all these strategic discussions?

Housing numbers
There is a question regarding housing numbers. Government has stated that the number of homes in an Eco-town can be off-set against the housing allocation for the District – so, building 5000 homes here means that we should not have to build 5000 homes somewhere else. However, figures are likely to rise anyway and perhaps government are more likely to increase housing numbers in a District if it thinks there is a good chance of an Eco-town there. Furthermore, the planned 5000 homes may just be a start. The evidence from other places is that once development is allowed we could well find that numbers shoot up.

Even if 5000 homes is the actual number, and these can be off-set against the numbers planned for Arun, the question that will have to be addressed is will building 5000 homes here have a lower environmental footprint than if they were built elsewhere in the District, associated with existing developments.

Even if it is a good plan, is Ford a good location?
Coming to the Ford location itself, there is still a big concern as to whether, in principle, this is a good place for an Eco-town. It will cause the coalescence of several settlements, is mostly on green-field land, will result in the loss of prime agricultural land and is on a site that tends to flood.

The travel question could be the key test of the proposal.

At present all sides (pro and anti) seem to be pushing in the wrong direction on this. Currently the Eco-town is being presented as a development that can be used to press for “improvements” to the A27 and other roads in the area. This is self-destructive to the travel ideas for the town. Road improvements will simply mean that people will continue to use their cars (although change may be forced anyway with global warming concerns and oil price increases/shortages), so modal shift to public transport will not take place. The idea of adding to political pressure for a damaging road also does not fit with the stated aim of a “District-wide modal shift to rail travel”.

Any bypass around Arundel will cause unacceptable damage to the environment, as well as increasing car travel and so increase congestion elsewhere. This blind-spot illustrates that the proposers have not grasped the idea of the proximity principle. The development must be based on the principle that as much as possible should be provided as locally as possible, so reducing the need for distance travel. Furthermore, it is claimed that the Ford Eco-town will be an exemplar for others to follow. This is good. So, as an exemplar it would be expected that neighbouring areas will follow the lead of reducing the need to travel so in turn will reduce their car dependency.

The idea of putting a hydro-power station under the bridge of a possible bypass does not make it any more attractive. The river Arun is one of the most important rivers in Britain for its wildlife. The aim for the river should be to increase its natural functioning – any sort of barrage across the river will be counter-productive.

A key test of the Eco-town, therefore, is not whether it adds to the political pressure for a road, it is whether it reduces the need for travel enough to remove the need for an Arundel bypass.

How deliverable is the environmental vision?
Nevertheless, the outline plans for the Eco-town do include some good ideas and, notwithstanding the comments above, added together they could form the basis of a sustainable community. Perhaps the biggest question, however, is what will happen in practice?

In the past we have talked to developers about plans for an area and often what start out as radical, environmentally sensitive designs gradually become compromised as costs are cut. This is not to imply anything sinister regarding developers; it’s just the way it works out. A new railway station, bus routes, cycle ways, schools, affordable housing, education centres and community centres will all use up funding. If money gets frittered away trying to gain support for damaging roads as well then I can see all the environmental plans being lost.

Environmental objectives must remain central
This compromising away of enviornmetla objectives is a symptom of how we do town planning in this country. We start off with the economic and social “needs” and the environmental “desires” are added later. We still tend to see the environment as a “nice to have” extra, rather than a fundamental requirement. Any pressure on the design and the first thing to go is the environmental aspect. For an Eco-town to be an Eco-town, this must be reversed. The environmental vision must come first and stay as the basic need. Economic and social desires can then be worked in around the environmental vision. This is not to favour bugs and beetles over people! In practice grounding social and economic plans in a strong environmental vision will deliver a higher quality development and so is more likely to achieve social and economic objectives than a plan where the environment is a mere add-on.

So – in summary
  • The environmental vision appears good, including ideas for greenspace, water courses through the development and habitat creation on the river Arun. This must not be compromised away and, indeed, should be made stronger and have centre-stage in the range of objectives.
  • If Ford is to be an exemplar, then it should not only deliver sustainability objectives itself, but it should drive a change to a more sustainable community in the wider District.
  • One test of acceptability will be if the development removes the need for road development in the area.
  • A major flaw is viewing Ford as a way of increasing the pressure for an Arundel bypass. This alone should mean that this level of development is not realistic in the District.
  • The Ford location has problems, is it in basis the right place?
  • Will 5000 houses built here have a lower impact than the same number built associated with existing settlements elsewhere?
  • Is 5000 homes here of 5000 elsewhere the real choice? In practice will the Eco-town simply give regional government the excuse to increase housing allocation in Arun District?