Bicester eco-town

Garden towns and cities are an idea from the past that could help us in the present prepare for the climate-changed future. A new one is rising from green fields near Oxford, England, that is about creating not just homes but a healthy, low carbon community.

Last month, delegates from 15 councils across England converged on the town of Bicester to understand how to create communities that are ready for climate change: a new garden town. [We covered the story of garden cities two years ago here.]

The visitors were shown round Elmsbrook, a zero-carbon community, where each home has been built to high energy efficiency standards with photovoltaic solar panels adorning every roof, and a new Eco Business Centre, offering state-of-the-art working space that’s the first non-domestic building to achieve Passivhaus Plus in the UK.

Elmsbrook’s aim is to make it easy for people to live happy, healthy and sustainable lives. It boasts an electric car club, free bike rental, and free installation of electric vehicle charging points to residents who go electric within the first two years.

The delegates also visited Graven Hill, featured in Channel 4’s Grand Designs, an alternative solution to house building that offers owners a plot of land with pre-plumbed services, and the chance to create their own home from scratch.

The Fifth Estate talked to Councillor Lynn Pratt, Lead Council Member for Economy, Regeneration and Property who represents Bicester North and Caversfield, and Jenny Barker, the Bicester delivery manager at Cherwell District Council.

Where the eco town idea started

The origin of the project goes back to a 2009 Labour government announcement flagging land to the north-west of Bicester as a site for an eco-town of about 5000 dwellings.

“From the start the council, with other local government partners and a business partnership formed a Strategic Delivery Board and were clear that they wanted not just new growth but to incorporate it into the existing town and improve it as a whole,” Barker said.

“When the government changed they started talking about garden cities and this was first announced in 2014.”

Pratt takes up the story: “The first phase in Elmsbrook is doing well. It’s a complete eco-development that’s been up and running for two to three years. The second phase is nearly finished and the third is underway. There is a school, business centre, shops and a community centre being planned.”

Some people have moved in were from nearby Bicester. The reaction of residents has been very favourable.

Healthy town

Local resident Amanda Flack says she regularly cycles along the cycle lane provided into Bicester. “This has opened our eyes to the number of dedicated off road paths available, which is so important when cycling with children.”

Her family has taken part in the Healthy New Town program, funded by NHS England and led by Cherwell District Council, which also encourages residents to use the three new Health Routes, a town centre Discovery Walk, and outdoor gym equipment in three parks.

Pratt says that the council put in these exercise route for people to follow, “and some people have done it who have never done any walking before.”

In terms of the whole town, “We began with the Kingsmere extension to the town and at Graven Hill there is 1900 homes to the south, on land purchased by the council,” continues Jenny.

“Individual developments are brought forward by different organisations, some private, in the north-west there is a housing association, and a self-build site is run by a company set up by Cherwell. There is a range of different projects at different stages and the role of the strategic development board is to coordinate everything.”

Low carbon town

Carbon and energy use is being monitored at Elmsbrook, where the 160 highly energy efficient homes are fed by a district heating system from a gas-fired combined heat and power energy centre. There are also a primary school, a community house and a play park.

Barker says that the gas fired CHP may be replaced by a heat pump system later to replace the low carbon fuel with renewables in keeping with the zero carbon development.

Elmsbrook’s developer A2Dominion captures anonymised energy use data through smart meters in every home, in the public areas and from resident surveys. It’s found that residents used 28 per cent less electricity and 50 per cent less heating and hot water than their neighbours in regular homes in Bicester, saving an average of £400 (AUD$749) on their energy bills (based on the 86 homes in phase one of the development with 12 months of full data, and the 32 homes in phase two with up to six months of data).

Elmsbrook also has an electric car club that 48 people have signed up to so far, and a half-hourly low-emission bus service with a free travel incentive that goes to the town centre and railway station that is used by one fifth of residents.

The area is a net exporter of energy with 276,291 kWh sold on in 2017-18.

Around 47 per cent of Elmsbrook’s home buyers have said that their home’s favourite design feature is eco-related – including solar PV panels, insulation, triple glazing, rainwater harvesting, as or the ample green space – and 57 per cent said the eco features were what they most liked about the development as a whole.

Residents are encouraged to use less water and recycle and reuse more. A2Dominion says it expects people will adopt more sustainable behaviours once they are supported to do so.

Creating a community

Barker says that ordinary developers were not interested in eco-town standards which the council has used. “But the developers that have chosen to work here see it as the way the market is going forward in the long run and saw the opportunity.”

“We wanted not to separate the old and new developments but to link them, so we worked with existing residents and encouraged them to form residents groups and take ownership of things like community halls so that when new residents moved in there was a gradual handover, and there were already an existing groups for them to join.

“We worked with the developers, we get feedback from them, and so we agreed that one of the houses in Elmsbrook would be allocated temporarily for community use until the actual community hall was built,” Pratt says.

“The locals hold open garden events and coffee mornings and have started a board game group.

“We did the same thing on another development. It’s little things that help people settle in.”

According to one Elmsbrook resident, “It’s how people should live in the future, the houses are very sustainable. There’s open community space. It’s built with future living in mind. They use less energy and less water. The houses are more efficient and it feels like an integrated community.”

Barker says that one of the issues for Bicester is that people buy homes there but commute to London, Birmingham and Milton Keynes to work, which of course affects their carbon footprint and the nature of the community as they often don’t get home until late in evening.

“We are conscious of getting those into the community as well and also creating opportunities for people to work from the community itself, with co-working space in the passive house building whether they run their own business or hot desk.

“We considered providing an accessible jobs including on the land, but the economics are hard because of the high land value, so to provide food we encourage community growing but not rural based industries in the development itself.

“One of the eco-town standard requirements is to create net biodiversity gain, so we had to survey what nature was there, what we could keep and what we could enhance.”

The council worked with consultancy BioRegional, who promote one planet living, to help them look for solutions where they got stuck.

They’ve also benefited from National Lottery funding and funding from Innovate UK for particular projects such as electric vehicle charging and a wildflower meadow.

Unfortunately, in 2015 the Conservative government cancelled the eco-own policy. Elmsbrook at Bicester is now the only one in development. You can read more about Cherwell Council’s ambitious project here.

David Thorpe is the author of the books The ‘One Planet’ Life and the new ‘One Planet’ Cities.

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  1. I’m also a resident, on the first phase of the site, and we’ve been here over 3 years now. There have definitely been some teething problems with build quality, and as the previous poster mentions, it’s very disappointing that plans for our local centre have changed so drastically to shoehorn in more flats and remove facilities we were promised. Residents are currently trying to make our voices heard by opposing the changes through the local planning department.

    However, I do really enjoy living on the estate. The spaces left wild are just fantastic, particularly in the springtime. We love our solar panels and rainwater harvesting – we can often charge our car for free in the summer time! The outdoor gym is really good to have, and the overall design of the buildings and sense of space is wonderful. There is also an excellent sense of community on the estate, and lots of events to meet neighbours. So I’d say all things considered it is a pretty good place to live. We just need to be proactive and make sure that the developer doesn’t get to call all the shots.

  2. I am a resident of the site and to say that the residents see the development as favorable is a stretch.

    Sky high estate management charges, restrictions on what you can and cannot plant in your own front garden, exaggerated savings claims and unfulfilled promises from the developer – we were promised an Pub and shops, these plans have changed and the proposal now includes no pub, reduced social space and flats trying to shoehorn more people in above to increase the management companies profits.
    Not to mention the parking issues and fines!