Ministers are planning the first eco-friendly town built from scratch and a string of low-carbon "green villages" to try to prove that big housing developments across southern England can be self-sufficient. The ministers are making developers revamp plans for a 10,000-home town five miles north-west of Cambridge to achieve 50% reductions in energy consumption and mains water use compared with conventional housing.

They will also announce a study into how 120,000 homes, to be built along the Thames Gateway to the east of London, can set the trend in coping with climate change.

The long-term ambition is for the entire gateway to be carbon neutral in its impact even if some homes and businesses fall short. That will mean helping to cut travel, providing local employment instead of acting as satellites for the capital, and possibly being a green technology hub from which Britain can export ideas.

Ministers hope to harness ideas for more "utopian" urban communities - exemplified, for instance, by Dontang, an eco-city of 500,000 people planned for a Shanghai suburb - and boost demand for photovoltaic cells, solar panels and domestic wind turbines so that the costs of such renewable energy equipment start to plummet.

The developments should, they believe, also help high-volume housebuilders to raise standards, first through voluntary codes but later by regulation, and make green technology affordable for everyone.

The plans will be outlined by Yvette Cooper, Ruth Kelly's deputy at the new Department for Communities and Local Government, when she addresses the Green Alliance thinktank with the environment secretary, David Miliband.

They will seek to establish the government's green credentials in the face of David Cameron's repositioning of the Conservatives on environmental issues while stressing that ministers will not be thrown off course from adding to housing in Britain. They are determined to see 200,000 homes a year being built within 10 years - 40,000-50,000 more than at present - and are making the issue one of social justice, since without the rise, they say, prices will continue to soar and home ownership will increasingly become the province of the rich.

Ms Cooper said: "This is not about symbolic gestures. It is about serious long-term plans to substantially change the way we build and develop. It would be easy to use climate change as a reason to stop development but it would be unsustainable when we need homes for the the next generation. We need to take the opportunity of new homes to change the market and improve our environmental standards."

The proposals for Northstowe, near Cambridge, are being drawn up by English Partnerships, which owns half the land, and the private company Gallagher. The scheme will go through its planning stages over the next year with building possibly starting late in 2007. Among the ministerial demands for the buildings are good insulation, solar energy devices such as roof-mounted collectors for hot water, large windows on south-facing walls, water recycling, water-efficient fittings, and porous paving to keep rainwater in the ground rather than running into drains.


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