Paying for Gordon Brown’s eco-towns

Gordon Brown, who almost certainly succeeds Tony Blair as Britain’s prime minister at the end of June, wants to help create a “home-owning, asset-owning, wealth-owning democracy” by, er, sponsoring the construction of 100,000 houses (BBC).

The good news is that he has in mind five carbon-neutral “towns” of 20,000 houses each, ideally built on brownfields, contaminated old industrial sites that the government will presumably clean up and then sell.

The Scotsman has the most thorough story I can find:

The eco-town idea is the first concrete proposal to emerge from Brown’s campaign nerve-centre.

In a speech to Labour party members in Kent yesterday, he said: “If we are to meet the aspirations of every young couple to do the best for themselves and their children, then we need to build new homes. We need to deliver well-planned, green and prosperous communities where they will want to live.”

The eco-towns will be built primarily on brownfield land. Each home will be constructed to environmentally friendly zero-carbon standards, using energy generated locally from sustainable sources.

Brown aides said the towns would include state-of-the-art zero-carbon schools and health centres, supported by extensive public transport.

The first eco-town is proposed for the abandoned Oakington Barracks in Cambridgeshire, and will include 10,000 new homes, with electricity delivered entirely by solar and wind power.

The Sunday Mirror has it that the government will provide the land, and private developers will do the rest. After Oakington Barracks, Brown wants local councils to “bid” in some way to have the others constructed in their territory.

Brownfields are a significant public-policy problem. They often end up in government hands because a private owner or owners have so fouled the land, perhaps over decades, that the cost of cleaning it up exceeds any profits anybody can imagine making from building on it afterward. They can be as small as an old gas station (though usually cleaning up such a site is within a private owner’s reach), or as big as the 100-hectare (250-acre) Sydney Tar Ponds in Nova Scotia.

Trouble is, when the government gets its hands on a piece of fallow ground, it frequently has an overwhelming impulse to build Something Special on it. A prime district in Ottawa sat empty for 40 years after the government expropriated it from hundreds of private owners planning to build an office complex, then changed its mind. In this case, Gordon Brown seems to see an opportunity to make a bricks-and-mortar statement about, I don’t know, wanting Britain to be green and very slightly less rented.

The second part’s easy. Once you’ve cleaned up the brownfield, sell it to someone who promises to build houses on it and sell them to other people.

The first, less so. State-of-the-art schools and health centres and elaborate transit systems and solar and wind power are expensive, and not just at first — they bring ongoing operating costs. From the coverage, it doesn’t sound as though Brown intends his government to have an ongoing financial relationship with these eco-towns, so presumably the costs of these green amenities will be distributed in the usual fashion: to the customers and local ratepayers.

Which in turn means these sound likely to be middle- to upper-class (by the standards of North America, where we don’t have dukes) communities. So much for sharing the dream of home ownership with the masses. Remind me what the public interest is here again?


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