Prescott makes promise of 200,000 homes, but maintains green belt will be safeguarded

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The Independent Online

Ambitious plans to solve the doubled-edged housing crisis of unaffordable homes in the South and unwanted homes in the North were unveiled yesterday by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister.

A sharp increase in the number of houses to be built in the overcrowded South-east is an important element in the detailed 20-year strategy, which Mr Prescott said would pump £22bn into housing regeneration across the country. But he claimed this would not mean concreting over swaths of the green belt, giving a guarantee that greenbelt land would be maintained, or even increased, in every English region.

The long-awaited strategy paper, Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future, was generally welcomed by planners and even by some green groups, who recognised Mr Prescott was trying hard to reconcile the conflicting demands of providing enough new housing while protecting the countryside.

Among his tougher proposals was a plan to give local authorities the power to force owners of empty homes to rent them out and pay for any refurbishment costs. Mr Prescott said that in London and the South-east alone some 70,000 homes in private ownership had been empty for six months.

The core of the Government plan is to tackle the collapse of the housing market in the North – where some houses in run-down areas of older industrial towns can in effect be worthless – while stepping up building in the South, where supply has fallen far behind housing demand and helped to push up prices to beyond the reach of most people on moderate or low incomes.

House building in the South-east has been a political hot potato, with fierce opposition from environmentalists, but yesterday Mr Prescott announced a substantial step-up in building rates. About 200,000 extra new homes, in addition to those already expected in regional planning guidance, will be built in the South-east between now and 2016, he said.

They will be not be scattered across the region but concentrated in four growth areas, Milton Keynes, Ashford in Kent, the so-called M11 corridor stretching from London to Stansted airport and on to Cambridge, and the Thames Gateway on the eastern side of London. All the areas will receive substantial government investment to attract business, with £446m for the Thames Gateway, and £164m each for the other three. But Mr Prescott told MPs: "I want to make it absolutely clear that this is not homes everywhere and anywhere. This is homes in sustainable communities to meet the shortfall in supply. Not suburban sprawl. Not soulless estates. Not dormitory towns." There would be an increased drive to reclaim brownfield sites, Mr Prescott said, adding that Labour had introduced the green belt 50 years ago. "Today I am giving a guarantee to maintain or increase greenbelt land in every region of England," he said.

At the other end of the scale, run-down property blackspots, mainly in the North, would receive £500m cash injections, Mr Prescott said, with nine regional housing regeneration partnerships to be set up. In the worst cases, houses might simply have to be demolished.

He also promised a series of measures to protect and enhance the country's social housing stock. Over the next three years there would be £50m for neighbourhood wardens to help people feel safer, £41m to drive up the quality of skills and urban design, £70m for community programmes to improve neighbourhoods, and £80m to help local authorities transform the quality of their parks and public spaces.

Kate Parminter, chief executive of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said: "Some new affordable housing will have to be built on green fields but it must be minimised, for the sake of our towns, our cities and the overall environment."

* House prices continued to rise last month, increasing by 1.5 per cent, on average, despite fears of an end to the consumer boom. The Halifax, Britain's biggest mortgage lender, said sustained low interest rates and low unemployment were driving demand for housing. The average price of a property stands at £123,451.