The disappearance of 30 electricity pylons from a chalk quarry in Kent heralds the construction of Britain's first new town of the 21st century, and the nation's first "wired" neighbourhood. By the autumn, the burgeoning town of Ebbsfleet will be branded by a "landmark" piece of British art. It will be the largest statue in Britain, chosen from a shortlist of six contenders currently exhibited within the megalithic Bluewater retail complex. Standing in the backyard of Bluewater, adjacent to Ebbsfleet international station - Eurostar's suburban link to Europe - the acreage of Ebbsfleet Valley is three times that of Hyde Park. As the realisation of this whole vision will take 25 years, the developers behind the scheme, Land Securities, will be selling dreams of the future for some time yet, even though show homes for the first stage, at Springhead Park, have recently been completed. Any doubts harboured by prospective residents - 10,000 new homes in total - about how the completed town will look are reassured by computer imagery that conjures up a 21st-century environment similar to beautifully clinical neighbourhoods in The Sims computer games.
It's impossible to second guess the future, but the creation of a "wired" town reveals how rapidly things have progressed since Orange showcased a "smart" home in 2001, highlighting the potential for modern technology in the household of tomorrow. Now, in soil where Roman bones from a children's burial ground are clues to a previous settlement at Springhead, wires and fibres for high-speed broadband and high definition television anticipate the arrival of the next settlers.
But how exactly do you create a characteristically 21st-century town in the baby years of the 21st century? We live in the century, the decade even, on which utopian socialists, social reformers and literary futurologists - notably Edward Bellamy, William Morris and HG Wells - pinned their hopes at the end of the 19th century. In his book The Ideal City (1893), the Christian socialist Samuel Barnett argued that, in the community of tomorrow, the desire for education would rule over the desire for money, and with education, welfare and housing covered by the state in the 20th century, luxury would become the issue. The concern over what might happen when the masses became acquainted with luxury and leisure was the bugbear that united all these utopianists. Social reform was, therefore, a taster for moral regeneration.
This became apparent a century ago when the progressive London county council attempted to take music halls, pubs and gambling out of the lives of the working class. Garden suburbs and garden cities such as Letchworth and Welwyn later put their weight behind teetotalism. Pubs and poor men's clubs were anathema; the institute and the library were to be at the hub of community life.
The great unwashed didn't go for this municipal puritanism promoted by their radical middle-class "betters". This was one of the reasons why Hampstead Garden Suburb never attracted the working class - well, that and the high rents - and why some early residents of Becontree in Dagenham, east London, the biggest council estate in the world in the 1920s, returned to dilapidated homes in the East End.
The visionaries behind Ebbsfleet Valley have created a masterplan for the 21st-century town that is a departure from those utopian estates and suburbs of the early 20th century. Springhead Park is the first of a series of neighbourhoods, each with its own green spaces, place of worship and community centre. Yet, on closer inspection, the housing plan for this town of tomorrow resembles a scheme first trailed in 1951, when the Festival of Britain laid down plans for the future. Visitors could walk through this work-in-progress and see within its neighbourhoods the model that would inspire the new towns of Stevenage and Harlow beyond the capital's green belt.
Around the same time, architects Alison and Peter Smithson were wandering through Bethnal Green, east London, in the name of research. What became apparent to them was the importance of "the street" within working-class communities, and the life lived on the street as a focal point of poor urban neighbourhoods. It was impossible to recreate the working-class community of old, as the need now was to build high and accommodate greater density of tenants. The Smithsons, therefore, proffered the "streets in the sky" idea that characterised the neo-brutalism school that dominated social housing throughout the 1960s.n the urban boroughs where estates from the 1960s and 1970s are currently being demolished, future schemes are a return to the street-and-grid system that the estates erased. Then, as now, the issue of what unites and focuses a neighbourhood remains - even in an age when the phrase "social engineering" has been overshadowed by "mixed communities" and "sensitive letting". It's something that will be no less relevant to Ebbsfleet, a community of, largely, owner-occupiers, on the cusp of Kent and the capital, a key project in the transformation of the Thames Gateway. Yet it appears to have addressed the issues that, historically, isolate a new town - transport and industry. By the end of 2009, commuters will be propelled into King's Cross from Ebbsfleet station in 17 minutes. Also, the 20,000 jobs promised might yet be possible.
But the very thing that makes Ebbsfleet a totally 21st-century British concept is that it will not become a "prairie" town or a dormitory suburb gazing hopefully to the big smoke for its labour, luxury and leisure. This new town is not a suburb of London, but a suburb of Bluewater.
Housed on reclaimed land, which should appease the less hysterical environmentalists, here is the first community to be built around a temple to turbo-consumerism. "Virtual water, glass fountains, had replaced the tired Kentish shore as a place of pilgrimage," wrote Iain Sinclair in an essay on the site, for the London Review of Books. "Bluewater," he said, "is a Ballardian resort (Vermilion Sands), shopping is secondary, punters come here to be part of the spectacle." In the risible Kingdom Come, JG Ballard himself has a shopping mall, clearly based on Bluewater, transforming into, of course, "a fascist state" controlled by armies of plebs distinguished by, of course, their white faces and a flag of St George.
The very existence of Bluewater as an example of western decadence was enough for a group of jihadists to arm themselves with manure and Semtex in a thwarted attempt to bomb the area, some time before the events of 7/7. Ebbsfleet itself has been a subject of consternation since plans were first mooted for "a truly 21st-century community where you can work, live and relax".
Writing in the Guardian at the time, Jonathan Glancey was concerned about "a city with no gods other than Prada, Gucci and Starbucks, with no cathedral or temple beyond the naves and domes of the mall itself, and with no ultimate purpose beyond stupefying consumption".
It's a fear that would have been echoed by those middle-class utopianists in the past, who were so keen to impose their vision of the ideal 21st-century city on the masses - and keep luxury, leisure and filthy lucre in the hands of the few who knew what to do with them.