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September 9, 2009

19th century ideals for 21st century living

Robert Owen’s enlightened thinking on how society could be better organised was way ahead of its time and his ideas are enshrined at the World Heritage Site, New Lanark  – a beautifully restored 18th century cotton mill village. Now there plans are afoot to place his pioneering vision in a modern day context with the creation of a new town – to be built along the same principles that Owen extolled almost 200 years ago

The Herald

Plans for a groundbreaking eco-town powered entirely by renewable energy and managed by residents have been unveiled in South Lanarkshire – with the ambitious project hailed by its backers as an opportunity to “revolutionise” housing developments in Scotland.

The 20,000-strong new community of Owenstown, inspired by the pioneering New Lanark industrialist Robert Owen, would live in one of the most ambitious town planning schemes ever undertaken north of the border.

However, The Herald understands the local authority responsible for granting any planning application has not seen the proposals. An academic expert has also raised questions about its viability.

The town, dubbed a “model village for the 21st century”, is the brainchild of the Hometown Foundation, a Scottish charitable trust established to help build self-sustainable communities and regenerate rundown areas.

A 2000-acre greenfield site in Rigside, near New Lanark, was purchased by entrepreneur Robert Durward and gifted to the foundation, of which he is a trustee, to develop its plans for a town based on Owen’s socially-conscious ideals.

The foundation claims that once completed, the town would support 8000 households and generate the same number of jobs, almost entirely sustainable, from a dedicated town farm supplying fresh vegetables for the residents. It also suggested there would be battery-powered buses and prefabricated houses with solar panel roofs.

District Heating Plant would generate energy by recycling waste from the town and surrounding area, according to the plan. This will be topped up by electricity produced by two wind turbines., while solar panels and roof-mounted wind turbines would be “greatly encouraged” by the planners.

Excess electricity will be sold to the National Grid and the profit ploughed back into a community run as a co-operative. Residents would pay as little as £1 for the chance to be elected to its board of trustees and get a direct say in how the town is run.

Stuart Crawford, a trustee of the foundation, which was only registered in January, said it aimed to be a community run “for the people, by the people”. He said: “We want to recreate the community spirit that seems to be lacking in many modern towns, and by doing so help counteract some of the economic, social and environmental ills that have come along with that.”

The foundation’s pledge to sell and let Owenstown’s prefabricated homes “below the average market rate” for an equivalent home in the area rests on its commitment not to include the cost of acquiring the land in house prices – traditionally a high percentage of any new property’s value.

However, questions remain over how the initial infrastructure would be funded, particularly in a period whether venture capital investment has fallen into sharp decline.

Dr Harry Smith, director of Sustainable Community Development at Heriot-Watt University, said: “They talk about affordable housing, but will they achieve socio-economic diversity? To what extent will it be open to all sectors of society, or will it run the risk of becoming some sort of virtual gated community, with only certain people able to move there?

“If they’re banking on the land being able to provide more affordable households, that is a good way forward, because land is a huge percentage of the cost of housing … but there is the risk of longer-term pricing-out.”

The foundation’s plans are certainly ambitious, and their method development – with zero input from the local council – also unorthodox.

While they claim to have had a “supportive” reception from local and national politicians, a spokesman for South Lanarkshire Council said: “South Lanarkshire Council has had no involvement with this development. We can’t speculate at this stage. We haven’t seen the plans.

“From the planning point of view, this is a quasi-legal situation – everything has to be looked at and nothing can be discussed in advance of it being properly assessed until any formal approach is made..”

As the first project proposed by the foundation, a new town of some 8000 households is nothing short of audacious. The four trustees – Arthur Bell, Robert Durward, John Lockhart and Stuart Crawford – come from backgrounds ranging from business through to charity administration, but none are well-known names.

Mr Bell founded his first company, Scotland Direct, in the town in 1973 and went on to serve 21 years as chair of New Lanark Housing Association. He is still chairman of New Lanark (Conservation) Trust.

Dr Jim Arnold, is the chairman of Owenstown Co-operative Board, but he has also served as director of New Lanark since 1974.

“In his lifetime, Owen never realised his dream; he never built his model town. It would be fantastic if we could build it in 21st-century Scotland,” said Dr Arnold.

A public consultation is under way and the plans will be exhibited from Tuesday in New Lanark.