Outrage over proposals to relax laws saving green belt from developers

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Proposals to relax the laws protecting greenbelt land around towns and cities from development were condemned by MPs and countryside campaigners yesterday.

The Royal Town Planning Institute said cities should be able to expand into greenbelt land to ease the housing crisis. Michael Haslam, the institute's president, said there were tensions between greenbelt policy and the Government's desire to see more sustainable housing.

He warned that if existing cities weren't allowed to expand outwards, developers would have to leap-frog over greenbelt land and expand into the next villages and market towns. Mr Haslam said on BBC radio: "We are trying to find sites on the edge of towns rather than leap-frogging into the open countryside."

Green belts were introduced in the Forties to protect the countryside from urban sprawl. They are under pressure for development because, if new houses are not built on greenbelt land, they are likely to be built in villages and small towns.

Henry Oliver, head of planning at the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said planners should look instead at developing brownfield sites. "There is a huge amount of land, both brownfield and greenfield, available either in plans or with planning permission, even in the South-east of England," he said.

"One important thing about green belts is their semi- permanence. People have confidence in them. Developers know the rules, and we undermine that at our peril."

Opposition parties also condemned the institute's proposals. Geoffrey Clifton- Brown, the Tory planning spokesman, said: "The greenbelt policy has been one of the great success stories of this country and it is vital that all other options are investigated thoroughly, including releasing brownfield land. If all the brownfield land available within the M25 was released, it would serve the housing demand for London for the next 10 years."

Adrian Sanders, the Liberal Democrat planning spokesman, warned that the proposals would undermine the purpose of greenbelt land, and make it harder to limit development in the countryside.