Blair urged to build on the best farmland

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Houses should be built on England's best farmland and protected areas to provide "rural diversity", says a leaked Cabinet Office report commissioned by the Prime Minister.

Houses should be built on England's best farmland and protected areas to provide "rural diversity", says a leaked Cabinet Office report commissioned by the Prime Minister.

The study from the Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit says the need to safeguard the best agricultural land - roughly one-third of England's farm area - to ensure the nation's food security is no longer relevant because of liberalised international trade.

Research from the Friends of the Earth (FoE) shows more than 140,000 houses will have to be built in areas now barred from development by government policies, unless John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, rejects official planning advice to build 1.1 million houses in south-east England by 2016.

Protected sites at risk include Green Belts, Areas of County Importance for Landscape, Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation, Country Parks and Regional Parks, Conservation Areas, Areas at Flood Risk, areas distant from public transport, and the prime agricultural land.

The need for housing is most acute in four counties in the South-east, according to FoE, where it would be impossible to build all the houses called for by the planning advisers without violating government guidelines. These are Hampshire, with 40,000 too many houses, Hertfordshire and Surrey, each with 37,700 too many, and Bedfordshire, with 21,900 too many.

Buckinghamshire officials say the proposals "beggar belief", Bedfordshire's describe them as "totally unrealistic", Surrey's say they are "sheer madness"and Hampshire's are "surprised and dismayed".

Farm and environment groups are against opening the best land to development, but the Country Landowners Association welcomed the "increased freedom" its members would enjoy.

The Cabinet Office report also says the Exchequer should get a share of the increase in land value that comes with planning permission, perhaps by imposing full-rate VAT on new homes. Local authority planners would control new agricultural buildings, now exempt.

Another idea is to set up environmental taxes, such as a pesticide tax, and car tolls in tourist areas. The funds could help to develop the rural economy on sustainable lines, with money from, say, the EU Common Agriculture Policy.

Additional short-term help should be given to organic growers, and hill farmers who look after many of England's finest upland landscapes. Farmers would be encouraged to produce high-quality regional foods under the EU's protected food name scheme, selling directly to consumers in farmers' markets. "Car clubs" to improve rural mobility without generating more traffic should also be stimulated.

Some proposals are expected in the Rural White Paper next spring. Other measures are being considered under the Treasury's spending review.

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