Unlike Jamie Oliver, I don’t exactly have the government hanging on my every utterance, but on Tuesday evening I did get to quiz Housing Minister Yvette Cooper about her eco-towns proposals. She had just given a twenty-minute talk, at an event organised by the Princes Foundation, on why eco-towns will be the most wonderful thing since Walt Disney first came up with the idea of theme parks. In so doing, she had hit every green button you could possibly think of so many times that they were burning hot by the end of her speech. I came away with the impression that this woman is so busy dispensing initiatives that she barely has time to sit down and think. And I am worried this might actually be true.
My question to her, put very simply, was this. Why bother? We have already been told that we are going to have to build all new homes to zero carbon standards by 2016 and we have been doing sustainable master planning for yonks, without a great deal of success, so what is the big deal about eco-towns? And why only 5,000 to 10,000 homes a time? And why out in the middle of nowhere? This being, in brief, the gist of the government’s own eco-town prospectus, published in July.
Yvette Cooper talks so fast and with such zeal that I hardly took in a word she said in reply. But I gathered that what she was on about was that
a) it needs to be at least 5,000 homes to be big enough for a secondary school and
b) they are already doing sustainable urban extensions (29 was a figure mentioned in passing) and
c) we need even more new homes so we have to find lots of new places to put them.
She did let slip that that she envisaged that, if successful, these small eco-towns would grow into big ones. To my mind, that immediately suggests that the infrastructure they initially get will rapidly prove to be obsolete. She also let us collectively know that the whole point of eco-towns was that everything in them should be eco, not just the houses. If I got her list right, it was “eco-offices, eco-schools, eco-shops and even eco-pubs.”
Now this set me thinking. What on earth would an eco-pub be like? There would of course be much more to it than triple glazing and a wind turbine on the roof. It, being a sustainable community, would have to embrace the green agenda, wouldn’t it? Would it be able to sell alcohol at all? Or would it stop you buying more than one drink? “Sorry, Madge, you’ve already exceeded your daily intake.” What about the food menu? Would it be Jamie’s pub grub? Smoking has of course already gone, but what about bad language or aggressive gestures. Just how lame would it all be?
Bear in mind that Letchworth, the world’s first new town, dating from 1907, was originally built without any pubs in order to ensure the population didn’t fritter away their time and money. On this basis, an eco-pub is therefore a contradiction in terms.
Then bugger me if the Guardian today isn’t carrying the following story on its front page: Fit towns plan to tackle childhood obesity. And bugger me if health secretary Alan Johnson isn’t being quoted at length saying he would like to ensure that the ten new eco-towns become fit towns. “Mr Johnson is leading a cross-government drive to put the eco-towns concept at the cutting edge of the fight against obesity.” The week before Johnson had gone on record as saying he thought obesity was as big a threat to us as climate change, and he is obviously keen to link the two issues.
I am left wondering if he is trying to hijack Yvette Cooper’s pet eco-town project, because the day before she didn’t mention anything at all about this so-called cross-government initiative. It’s all rather disconcerting. What’s a cub reporter to make of it all? Should I go and drown my sorrows down at the eco-pub?