Country life to be rescued by town cramming

More than half of all new houses will have to be built inside England's villages, towns and cities under new government plans
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More than half of all new homes should be built inside England's villages, towns and cities, the Government will announce today in a long-awaited planning document.

The Government hopes this target will reduce the controversy surrounding the need for a 4.4 million - or 23 per cent - increase, between 1991 and 2016, in the number of households in England.

Some planners and house-building firms say that in squeezing so high a proportion of the new homes needed into existing urban areas the Government may create future slums. "Town cramming", they say, will erase much of what urban greenery remains and make towns and cities more crowded and unpleasant, fuelling the desire to live in the countryside. Planning constraints will make this rural dream attainable for only a tiny, wealthy minority.

But the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, says the alternative is the disappearance of further great tracts of English countryside. "Suburbia from Winchester to the Thames estuary" is his warning phrase.

Today's planning document will make a strong case for civilised city life - new urban terraced homes with compact gardens on streets rather than the semis and detached houses in space-wasting closes which the big house-building firms prefer. It will call for the maximum housing use of derelict and contaminated urban land, of empty space above shops and in vacant offices. Nowhere are the fears about house building greater than in Hampshire, where the number of new homes has doubled in 45 years and where the space they cover has more than doubled.

The Government has said that the county, and Hampshire's smaller district councils, should identify space for 92,000 new homes between 1991 and 2006; this is deemed its fair share of the rapid nation-wide increase in household numbers.

But the county says there isa need for only 82,000 new homes. The Government has the ultimate right to force the county to comply with its higher housing figure, and Mr Gummer has already overruled attempts by Kent, Berkshire and Bedfordshire to plan for lower numbers than the Government proposed for them.

Hampshire plans to accommodate most of the new housing inside towns and villages, in line with the Government's new target, but intends 14,000 homes to be built on four large greenfield areas next to Basingstoke, Andover and the commuter sprawl that has grown up north of Southampton and Portsmouth.

These development areas are a more rational, sustainable option than cramming the new housing into the county's villages and towns equally, or spreading it around their edges, the county is arguing at a public inquiry into the council's structure plan for development over the next 15 years.

However, Eagle Star, the property and insurance giant, wants planning permission for a "newtown" at Micheldever Junction, in the open countryside between Basingstoke and Winchester.

The company has options to buy extensive farmland there and envisages 8,000 homes in a private-sector "market town" with its own railway station on the London to Southampton line. The county opposes this.

Around all four of the big development areas, countryside and village dwellers have banded to oppose the big new suburbs. The largest of these developments would bridge the mile-wide gap between Basingstoke and the pretty dormitory village of Oakley, with 4,500 homes.

Gary Rolfe, a self-employed craftsman who leads the Save Oakley Village Action Group (Sovag), said: "It would totally change our village's character, turning it into a suburb." Sovag's car stickers shout: "Say No to Oakleygate."

The Council for the Protection of Rural England says much more could and should be done to find space for new homes in cities like Southampton, which are still de-populating, and so encourage developers to come in.

St Mary's and Bevois Valley, a large inner-city tract east of Southampton's centre, has been earmarked by central and local government for a major regeneration programme. It still has some pretty roads of well-kept private terraced homes, showing its potential.

But it also has the usual urban core problems; derelict industrialist sites, deprivation, boarded-up shops and a red-light trade, which the local Asian community resents, in the once-fine Victorian streets.

Only 200 new homes are proposed as part of the regeneration of an area in which 18,000 live, and most of these are expected to be for people on low incomes and with "special needs". A secure, long-term revival for the area depends on people with jobs and money living there. But, even if homes were to be built for them, they would be unlikely to stay once they had families, because people with children want greenery and space and tend to fear crime and poor standards in local schools.

Robert Jones, the planning minister, said that turning the English into a nation of city-lovers was difficult but crucial. "Nobody said it was going to be easy," he said. "But reviving cities are a joy to behold."