Do EcoVillages and Other Sustainable Developments Inform UK Housing Concepts?

Green developments are perceived as a means to circumvent local planning processes. Private investments in earth-friendly, resilient development can still work.

In this age of sustainable design and building, it’s an unsettling fact that the “eco-towns” thought to offer housing solutions in the UK have not come to fruition. But in the best ways of looking at it, the stalled concepts of green communities might provide ideas and lessons for the kinds of communities that are and will be built in the near future. The problem may not have been green building per se, but the process by which such communities are bureaucratically created.

In 2007, Gordon Brown initially proposed ten large-scale, carbon-neutral communities that would be built on greenbelt land. Ideally this would have delivered 200,000 new homes which, of course, are sorely needed in the UK where an estimated one million households are waiting for affordable accommodations.

The idea of earth-friendly building is technically no longer a pie-in-the-sky concept. LEED certified buildings, including residences, as well as Passivehaus construction, which entails structures so energy efficient they draw little to no energy from outside sources (using solar or geothermal energy instead), are becoming commonplace in Europe and the world over. With construction supply networks incorporating once-advanced technologies and materials as standard equipment, it has become increasingly expected that high-performance buildings make much better use of resources (energy to build and energy to operate) than in previous times.

But something that is well understood by experienced homebuilders and investors (such as land fund managers) is that it is unsavoury and nearly impossible to parachute in a large-scale development onto any community. EcoTowns have yet to be built, and the reasons are largely because existing communities opposed them – not because they are environmentally sustainable, but because they impose large changes on the existing communities themselves. The progressive concept was perceived as a means to circumvent planning authorities, but those authorities fought back.

Two communities are still on the planning process track, in North West Bicester (a 382-acre, 2,600 home site) and Rack heath (near Norwich), which could include 5,000 new homes, 30 per cent of which would be affordable. Each would feature renewable energy use, efficient waste reduction and management, minimised transportation emissions (incorporating public transport, bicycling and car sharing) and efficient water use. But as of late 2014, neither has been built.

Top-down planning is problematic in England, particularly in the new “localism” era. Planning authorities are required to increase the housing supply to meet the high demand, but how and where is to be worked out with local communities. This is how private development companies are accustomed to working – develop a plan and provide the infrastructure necessary to enhance the community. Typically, these are on a smaller scale so as to minimise disruption and to answer immediate needs, such as to provide housing that then makes the area attractive to employers.

Still, the environmental goals and tactics can be incorporated into smaller, investor-led development. Energy-efficient homes are more valuable. Natural green spaces, watershed management, preservation of habitat and healthful living amenities (such as walking and biking accommodations) still provide a qualitative living experience.

This is why capital growth planning from private investors has a greater chance of succeeding in the next few years. Working through prescribed (and modernised) planning processes, they can propose community-appropriate development where eco-friendly features are a clear enhancement of the local environment. In other words, sustainability does not require large-scale building.

Individuals can get involved in these developments as investors, including members of those existing communities; before doing so, however, they are advised to consult with an independent financial advisor to determine if the investment fits an overall wealth-building strategy.