Will we become 'eco settlers' by accident? (pic from treehugger.com)

Back in 2007, to great fanfare, the government announced plans to create a handful of ‘eco towns’, prototype communities to take us to our 21st-century, low-carbon future.  Later on, four successful bids were announced, in Rackheath, Norfolk; northwest Bicester, Oxfordshire; Whitehill Bordon, East Hants; and the China Clay Community near St Austell, Cornwall.

Then… well, the usual kind of stuff happened – consultations, reports, standard-setting and the like. And then, a change of government and some sharp economic realities.

So where are the eco towns now? Hitting the rocks? In fact, they’re hitting the ‘bricks and mortar’.

In north-west Bicester, P3 Eco Ltd has recently opened a carbon-neutral demonstration house made entirely from recycled materials, sustainable resources or recyclables. It comes complete with thermostatically controlled mechanical ventilation, heat recovery system and rainwater harvesting.

We think it’s great when people have a chance to get familiar with the (surprisingly ‘normal’) kinds of homes they might be living in in a short while, and this is the driving logic behind our Energy Saving Open Homes programme.

But back to our story. New eco town developments in rural areas are coming under fire because of possible use of greenfield sites, the lack of local infrastructure, and a designed-in reliance on cars for getting around.  The towns themselves are green, in other words, but the need to transport yourself in and out could end up offsetting all the good work on the housing stock.

Thinking now is more about density, and the lower carbon footprints it enables. A sort of grassroots micro-version of the spirit of the eco towns is now springing up – in more urban spots, where access and infrastructure are in place.  In and around Leeds (one of the original suggestions for an eco town location) all kinds of plans are being thrown about.

The City Council is considering plans for a new ‘urban eco settlement’, which would see 12,000 new homes and 8,000 retrofitted.

The proposals also include plans to develop ‘stepping stones’ linking the city centre to the Aire Valley area of Leeds, which the organisers hope will hasten development along the East Leeds Link Road.

In the south of the city the private sector is taking the lead in developing ‘eco community’ ideals, albeit on a smaller scale. ‘The Greenhouse’, as it’s known, has rooted itself in Hunslet, a deprived neighbourhood, and offers residents solar and wind-generated electricity, free bikes, vegetable plots, and even smart water use similar to that in the Bicester scheme.

Who says there’s a north/south divide?

And there are smaller projects springing up all over the country – the Transition Network is one organisation helping a number of small-scale community developments to green up their own patches.

So whether eco towns ultimately come about by central decree or more organic, people-sized efforts, it looks as if they are slowly happening. And it’s a good thing: the challenge of reducing our domestic carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 means we really need that change.