7,500 homes schemes thrown out

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Three big housebuilding schemes in the unspoilt countryside of south-east England will be thrown out by a Government inspector this week.

Three big housebuilding schemes in the unspoilt countryside of south-east England will be thrown out by a Government inspector this week.

Any one of the schemes, each for 2,500 homes on greenfield sites, would have opened the door to a huge new swath of development in rural Berkshire, the scene of Britain's fiercest battles over the countryside and housing.

Their rejection, after a long planning inquiry, may mean that large, completely new settlements in open country - a particular bugbear of environmental campaigners - are a thing of the past.

Although John Prescott, the Secretary of State for the Environment, will have the final say, the inspector, Douglas Machin, makes clear in his report, which The Independent has seen, that he has based his conclusions on the new guidelines for housing planning, which Mr Prescott himself issued in March.

These stress the environmental consequences of inappropriate development and suggest councils adopt a "sequential" approach to allocating housing land - using up all the brownfield land opportunities before greenfield land is considered.

This has not been done, says Mr Machin, with the suggested schemes at the villages of Grazeley, Spencers Wood and Shinfield, each of them alternative proposals for 2,500 houses, which the district council, Wokingham, had been told by Berkshire County Council to accommodate.

All are situated near each other in the open countryside south of Reading, which has hitherto been protected from development by the M4 acting as a natural barrier. Locals feared that if the barrier was breached, urban spread would eventually cover the countryside between Reading and Basingstoke, a nightmare they call "Readingstoke."

Thirty-two parish councils united to fight the plans, and not least of the effects of the inspector's decision is that the M4 barrier has been preserved.

Mr Machin said: "The need for a single major development of 2,500 houses is not justified. The council should determine the scale and location of housing in the area south of the M4 in accordance with the principles of sustainability. Those principles are at the heart of the Government's approach to planning for new housing published in March."

There are "fundamental landscape objections" to all three proposals, he says, with the Grazeley scheme in particular "bringing about a dramatic change to an area of relatively undisturbed and tranquil countryside".

Furthermore, he says, all three schemes would result in a serious loss of high-quality agricultural land. And in a stinging rebuke to past planning policies for housing, he concludes: "The consequences of developing on such a large scale in the wrong place would be grave, irreversible and far outweigh the short-term expedient of meeting a numerical housing target."

Tony Burton, the assistant director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said that the rejection of the three schemes was "a hugely important decision for the countryside".

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