Country Matters: More houses - who needs them?

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The Independent Culture
Can anyone save the countryside from the tidal wave of concrete, bricks and mortar likely to roll in, as the Government seems convinced that England needs 4.4m new houses by 2011?

The closer you look into this looming catastrophe, the smaller the chances seem of averting it.

This gloomy assessment derives in part from a meeting recently held by our local sub-branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE). In global terms we of the Berkeley Vale count for practically nothing. We are one of 200-odd sub-branches, and our 170-odd members constitute only a fraction of the CPRE's total strength of 46,000.

Nevertheless, we felt we should make presentations to parish councils to show that we had been doing our best to fight the proposals of the Gloucestershire County Structure Plan. The meeting, held in the village hall at Slimbridge, highlighted the weakness of the whole planning process, as well as the deep-seated alarm of local people that they are about to be overrun by urban sprawl.

The first draft of the structure plan, covering 1991 to 2011, stated that Gloucestershire would have to find room for 53,000 new houses; but the draft attracted such a storm of objections that in November last year it was abandoned.

A deposit draft plan, published in April this year, reduced the total to 50,000, but was also attacked from every quarter; and in September an independent panel appointed by the Government held an Examination in Public (EiP) to review all the submissions put forward. We are now awaiting the panel's report.

The main point we put to our meeting was that vigorous local action groups, helped by the CPRE, had shot the case for 50,000 houses full of holes: our own research had shown that the total was wildly exaggerated. The figure was strongly influenced by the net immigration of people to the county, which, it was claimed, had been running at an average of 2,700 people a year for the past two decades.

Recourse to the Office of National Statistics revealed that one third of the 2,700 were Armed Forces personnel; but the checks we made with the commanding officers of local garrisons showed that the alleged net inflow of 900 service personnel per annum does not exist. It is an entirely fallacious statistical projection from trends that are no longer in being. Far from increasing every year, the strength of the Armed Forces in the county is falling slowly as bases are run down.

The structure plan includes provision for 8,000 service homes. Our research has made it clear that these are simply not needed. Moreover, our latest information on general population trends in the South-west strongly suggests that even if 8,000 were removed from the county total, reducing it to 42,000, this figure would still be too high.

The import of these figures is obvious. But will they make any difference in the end? Will anyone in authority pay attention to them? Our scouts came away from the EiP with the strong impression that the answer to both questions is "No".

The inspector in charge was eminently fair and thorough in hearing evidence; but his report will have no executive power.

It will contain recommendations only, and it will be the County Council that, in the end, takes the decisions. One experienced observer reckoned that the final total might go up from 50,000, rather than down - such are the pressures in favour of building.

On the one hand, the big developers are clamouring for sites and offering huge prices for land. On the other, with agriculture in depression, farmers who cannot make ends meet are eager to sell.

The council itself, chronically short of funds, owns several farms from which, in theory, it could make millions.

Last November, when Stroud District Council put out a call for possible sites in the Berkeley Vale on which to build 1,000 houses, the response was phenomenal: in came offers of 3,800 acres - enough for 40,000 houses at least. Yet that should not have been surprising, for building land is now paved with gold.

Earlier this year a single acre in Cheltenham sold for pounds 750,000. The normal rate is pounds 250,000 an acre.

One plan - temporarily kicked into touch by furious opposition - was to site 1,400 houses in the lovely Painswick Valley. Had that gone through, the main beneficiary, an elderly farmer, would have been pounds 40m better off.

How can such pressures be resisted? How can we prevent the construction of houses that are not needed? If the figures for Gloucestershire are being exaggerated by 20 per cent through inertia, idleness or greed, how far is the national total of 4.4 million houses over the top? That was what people at our meeting wanted to know.

The evening made it clear that every village in our area feels threatened, and I have no doubt that their alarm is shared by thousands of other small communities all over England. One man suggested that the whole programme is in fact being driven by market forces; that the developers would not be building so many houses if people were not snapping them up.

Somebody pointed out that developers went down like ninepins during the last big recession, and hinted that the same thing might happen again. Someone else called on the Government to impose a punitive tax on the sale of green-field sites.

Last January rural people discerned a ray of hope when John Prescott, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, called for this very measure, and announced that the Government intended to concentrate new house-building on brown-field locations.

Yet he did nothing to stop large-scale green-field developments already scheduled near Stevenage and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and little more has been heard of his initiative on urban renewal; but all over the country thousands of people are fervently hoping it is not dead, for they fear that nothing but firm government action can save them.