A few months ago I visited the North West Bicester Eco-town development at Elmsbrook. In the UK we have become accustomed to new housing developments being built to quite a high density. For example at Kingsmere (another development in South West Bicester) there’s not much space in front of each property. The houses are built almost up to the edge of the road. Parking spaces are limited and it is all designed to discourage people from using their cars. This is typical of contemporary housing in the UK today. Indeed it is mandated by planning policy. But to me it feels claustrophobic!
Just off the Banbury Road, the second phase of North West Bicester has begun at Elmsbrook. The development represents one of just 11 sites world-wide to meet the ‘One World Living’ standard. It should be quite special and it has a good feel to it.. The pace of the development seems almost organically grown.
While the houses here may not be quite as stylish as some of the designs at Kingsmere, many have additional eco features – all homes have solar panels, there’s fruit trees planted in the gardens and the windows are triple glazed. The first impression is one of space – and of the quietness. Perhaps surprisingly, these sustainable zero carbon houses do not appear to be any more expensive than equivalent new build properties at Kingsmere (a 4-bed eco-home was selling at £475,000 in May 2015). What’s not to like about an eco-home for essentially the same money as an ordinary new build?
Well they are still not particularly affordable. And there’s not nearly enough of them. They are too remote from the town centre and built at too low density. So you’ll need a car – luckily electric charging points are available so you can plug one in. In theory there should be sustainable transport but until 2016 there was no bus route.
The E1 Eco bus has been provided thanks to Section 106 funding. S106 payments are paid by developers as part of an agreement with the council to address impacts arising from development. In certain cases the funding may be available to help support the local bus network. Note that these payments are ‘one-off subsidies’ and are paid for a period of time prior to a route either becoming commercial or being discontinued. If there is not enough demand for the service to warrant commercial involvement sadly it is not likely to continue.
And whenever I have seen that bus it appears virtually empty. Experience elsewhere suggests you need a certain population density for public transport to become viable. I fear that in future there could be rather a long wait for a bus – unless you’re prepared for a long walk into town. Oxfordshire County Council no longer provides funding for buses in the county, all bus subsidies ceased with effect from 20 July 2016.
As for jobs and other amenities, like local shops – well of course there’s nothing yet. Though there is a primary school but it is not yet open. All too often we build houses but not the other facilities to match. What is really needed for a sustainable community is for the jobs to come first – not just houses – so that people can live near to where they work. So I doubt that you can really call these houses sustainable.
I think we could learn a thing or two from Victorian industrialists. For example George Cadbury who built the model village at Bournville, Birmingham or Titus Salt who developed Saltaire near Bradford. They weren’t necessarily concerned about energy efficiency or sustainability then but what they did do was to provide quality accommodation for their work force in the factory or mill. At the time the alternative was often squalid, unsanitary, overcrowded and polluted slums. Bournville had generous housing with large gardens and plenty of space and light. There were parks and playing fields, bowling greens and a swimming pool. And of course there was the ‘factory in a garden’ providing employment.
At Saltaire, where the model village provided accommodation for the textile mill, sturdily built houses had clean air, fresh water and gas. There were shops, a church, school, library and hospital. Plus public baths and wash-houses. However, in common with Bournville, there were no public houses as the workers were expected to remain sober!
I can’t help feeling there’s something missing from our eco-town development. In particular there’s a lack of jobs locally that pay enough money – so buyers probably need to commute. Alternatively housing needs to be much more affordable. I’m encouraged that eco-housing doesn’t necessarily need to cost any more. But why can’t we have more environmentally friendly houses, at higher density (and therefore better priced), suitable for the mainstream? That will then facilitate public transport links. That’s what sustainable development needs.
With the decline in manufacturing and the 21st Century global economy, traditional large industrial complexes are few and far between. However there are contemporary developments e.g. at Canary Wharf or Media City, Salford where there is a mix of development. Residential development sits alongside commercial offices and retail space. It provides local employment opportunities. There’s no reason why such mixed use developments cannot feature high quality eco housing and green spaces too!
We could do so much more in Bicester. Instead our so-called garden town is in danger of being surrounded by a mish mash of large-scale anonymous warehouses which create relatively few jobs.