The eco-towns, or Flintgrads as they are known after the not-very-bright single-issue fanatic Caroline Flint who is promoting them, are flawed in concept and far from eco. Weston Otmoor, near Oxford, has more flaws than most. We have seen New Labour’s bad faith in this region before and take no comfort either from Flint’s promise to adhere to the planning process or from our estimate of her ability to hold the developers to their promises.
A report commissioned by the Government to challenge the developers of the so-called “eco-towns” has applauded the “developed transport strategy” on which the plans are based, but foresees that Weston Otmoor, the development close to Oxford, will simply become a dormitory town. Their report says
The transport strategy is potentially transformational and uses tram-train, free travel and demand management for car-use. As residents may simply take the tram to the park-and-ride and drive to either London or Birmingham, how will the town be stopped from becoming Commuterville?
All sorts of questions arise here, not least how a group including a fashion designer and a couple of television presenters can purport to have anything useful to say on the subject, particularly as they do not appear to have spoken to anyone opposed to the Weston-Otmoor scheme.
Their criticism is at best based on an assumption that the developers will actually provide the transport infrastructure on which their plans are based. The reality is that the provision of anything outside the town itself is dependent on unreliable third parties – Network Rail for the promised regular train services to London, Birmingham and Oxford and the Government itself for the road links. The badly-designed A34/M40 junction and the A34 towards Oxford are already over-loaded. If the promised transport links come up to the promises, then Commuterville it is; if they do not, then the eco-town becomes just a dormitory town feeding thousands more into an over-stretched transport system. The whole idea of dumping a 2,000 acre housing estate in some fields and hoping for the best does not amount to a housing strategy.
But then one does not hope for a strategy from Housing Minister Caroline Flint. John Prescott’s departure from government leaves Flint the undisputed holder of the title Minister least equipped to think Prescott too had great plans for dumping swathes of housing all over the south of England without regard to infrastructure implications – not just transport, but hospitals, schools, jobs, water supply all conspicuous by their absence from the schemes. Flint has presumably inherited the same officials and certainly brings no greater intelligence to bear than Prescott did to addressing the problems.
Flint famously has room for only one thought in her head at a time. This week it is affordable housing, and she drones on in her curiously flat, dull tones about affordable housing as if it were a stand-alone imperative which outweighs all practical considerations. An imperative it certainly is, largely thanks to a decade of government neglect and uncontrolled immigration, but the actual houses are only part of the problem. Multi-dimensional solutions are not likely to come from this one-dimensional minister.
These Ceausescu towns, or Flintgrads as they are being called, are flawed in principle anyway, the “eco” label being mere window-dressing for what a writer to the Oxford Times called “the antithesis of planning”. Quite apart from its dependence on an infrastructure which is unlikely to be provided as specified, this particular one conflicts with the local plan for growth at Bicester and Banbury.
Caroline Flint promises full compliance with the usual planning process. “Let me be absolutely clear: eco-towns will go through the planning process, and suggestions otherwise are wrong”. This is not likely to impress in a region well-used to broken government promises on this front. Beverley Hughes, when Immigration Minister, made the same promise over the proposed immigration centre near Bicester in 2002 shortly before the government ignored a planning inspector’s recommendation against the plans.
Hughes was later forced to resign when caught lying about another aspect of immigration policy. One of the protesters said of her “I thought she was a patronising, short-sighted woman. She was of the old school where she knew best and what was good for you”. Knowing what is best for you is Caroline Flint’s most famous trait. The problem is that she doesn’t know anything else.
The reference to “the planning process” is deliberately disingenuous anyway. The “process” in matters like this allows the Minister to call in a planning decision and reverse an inspector’s finding, just as Prescott did over the immigration centre. The government will want to deliver on this before it is kicked out of office less than two years from now.
New Labour is also, as we know, a babe-in-arms when it comes to dealing with skilled private-sector negotiators. Property developers, like IT providers, doctors and big consulting firms, can run rings round a bunch of career civil servants and the unworldly amateurs of government in contractual discussions. Nothing in Flint’s experience as bar maid, council equalities officer and Westminster researcher will equip her to secure a deal which ties down a developer adequately to its promises, quite apart from her lack of any obvious intelligence.