MMETAG interviewed by Cranfield Express

 

  Hugh and Stewart for Cranfield Express

Taking cover – but can Hugh Roberts and Stuart Long as easily protect Marston farmland, (pictured), from becoming a 15,000 dwelling
eco-town?

Cranfield’s eco-worry

 

On a recent, rainy morning, Margaret Rooney met with Hugh Roberts and Stuart Long, chair and secretary of the recently formed Marston Mortaine Eco-Town Action Group, (MMETAG), to find out more about the proposed eco-town and local reaction to it. There were originally two Marston Vale sites identified in the government’s list of 15 potential sites, but the developers of the New Marston, (Kempston Hardwick), proposal, have withdrawn. However, warns Hugh, “New Marston will still go ahead under a different guise”.

 

Should Cranfield be concerned about this eco-town proposal? “Most definitely,” asserts Hugh, without hesitation. “Even if Cranfield is not directly involved, it is on the edge. The development will be a small part of a big jigsaw puzzle that connects Milton Keynes to Bedford. Between this proposal and the extension of Milton Keynes to this side of the M1, it is only a matter of time before these developments are lapping at the edge of Cranfield. Do you wish to cease to be a village and become part of the Bedford to Milton Keynes conurbation? Do you want to replace rural life with urban living? You need to have a clear view of what future you want.”

 

“The government is pre-disposed to develop further housing and much of Marston Vale is already owned by developers. The local community should take control, but it can only do this if it has a vision of its own future.” Hugh believes it is not enough to be against development or against an eco-town, if the community has not thought through what it does want. In this respect, Marston’s parish plan is key, and Hugh applauds Cranfield for the effort that has gone in, and is still going into, the development of its plan. “A vacuum is not helpful to a community’s interests,” he asserts. “A community needs a view of what it will look like.”

 

So, why was MMETAG formed and what are its concerns? Hugh believes the government’s real agenda is to build a new town: in this respect, he agrees with various national commentators, who have described the concept as an “eco-con”. Marston Parish Council facilitated a local meeting on 24 June, but the chairman made it clear that it was up to the local community to take ownership of any further action. Hugh found himself chair of the meeting for the rest of the evening and subsequently chair of MMETAG. “Marston Parish Council is to be commended for helping to encourage the local community to organize in this way, and as a consequence, young people, not usually involved in local activities, are active participants in MMETAG.”

 

The group organized a public meeting which was attended by Nadine Dorries, on 9 July. More than 200 people attended and MMETAG has a mailing list of about 150 people. The group now boasts its own web site and has had a measure of success with press releases and letters to the media. “I was pleasantly surprised at how much local expertise and knowledge we could draw on”, commented Stuart. “People came forward to help with maps, artwork, printing and distribution of a local leaflet, all at no cost”.

 

The Marston Vale proposal is unique among the remaining 13 national proposals in several respects:

 

  • Scale – it is two to three times bigger than other proposals, (three times the population of Ampthill and Flitwick combined)
  • It would be built alongside existing dwellings which do not meet eco criteria
  • 90% of the identified site is green field.

 

Stuart comments, “We need to challenge the ‘eco’ credentials. Research in other parts of Europe concludes that to be truly ‘eco’ is to be part of an existing urban development. Building on a green field site is completely ‘un-eco’.”

 

“What will happen to the existing communities and commuters?” asks Hugh. “Will there be things planned in to discourage the ways we live now, such as our use of the motor car?” It is these and many other unanswered questions that motivate Hugh and Stuart to ensure that Marston’s voice is heard and that MMETAG is taken seriously as a consultee in the eco-town development process.

 

“Even the consultation process is not clear,” says Hugh. “It is a four stage process: we are currently in the second stage, which ends in October. The first stage ended in June, but it was not clear who was being consulted. No resident received a proposal for comment. It seems to me that the last people consulted are the people who already live here.”

 

Hugh’s nightmare scenario is that Marston Vale will be the only viable site, as in his view, it ticks all the housing development boxes, rather than eco-town. “It is vital that the communities of Cranfield, Marston and Lidlington take control of how they want to respond to that.”

 

O and H Properties, which has submitted the Marston Vale proposal, is having a consultation on 28 August at Marston Village Hall. “This is supposed to be a vision of Marston in 2021,” muses Hugh, “but will they be able to answer questions such as, ‘How will I get to work? I am homeless – will I be first in the queue? Are you offering me an alternative way of living?’…..I very much doubt it.”

 

Further information available from:

 

MMETAG’s website, www.mmetag.com

CLG’s website, www.communities.gov.uk, for the Eco-towns prospectus

O and H’s proposal document for Marston Vale, www.marstonvale.co.uk

 

General background to eco-towns

The Department of Communities and Local Government, (CLG), published its prospectus for eco-towns in July 2007. Initially, five eco-towns were envisaged, but Gordon Brown increased this to ten. Proposals were invited and in early 2008, 15 shortlisted sites were published. Two were in Marston Vale alone: New Marston at Kempston Hardwick, (now withdrawn), and Marston Vale, between Lidlington and Marston Mortaine.

 

The ultimately successful proposals will have to fulfill what the housing minister, Caroline Flint has called, “rigorous” criteria, including:

 

  • At least one worker per household  should be able to get to their job by walking, cycling or using public transport,
  • A minimum of 40% of land within the town should be undeveloped green space
  • The whole development should be “zero-carbon”
  • Bids will have to submit planning applications to local authorities with requirements for 30% affordable housing.

 

Public reaction to the concept has been hostile. The Campaign to Protect Rural England, while giving a cautious welcome to the concept, is concerned that the standards should be more challenging and has called on the government to ensure that normal planning processes are followed.

 

Sian Berry of the Green Party thinks eco-towns are simply a bad idea. She maintains that there are already 700,000 homes in England, sitting empty, ripe for refitting with green technologies. She also questions how green these new towns will be in transport terms.

 

Local campaign groups opposing the short listed sites have sprung up in many areas, with perhaps the most high profile campaigner being Tony Henman, (father of tennis player, Tim), who has been highly vocal in his protest against the short listed site in his native Oxfordshire.

 

During Stage 2 of the programme, (from September 2008), the government will be consulting members of the public about the eco-towns programme.

A range of exhibition and consultation events will be taking place in venues close to the sites of the potential eco-towns in September and October 2008.

Details of the public exhibitions will be advertised in advance in the local press,

and will be available on the Communities and Local Government website at

www.communities.gov.uk/ecotowns

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