Dismay over rural housing ruling

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THE BATTLE for rural Britain has begun. A ruling that the Government can order a local council exactly how many new houses it must allow to be built in its districts has led to widespread concern that vast swathes of countryside are about to disappear under concrete.

Last week the High Court ruled that John Prescott, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, was right to impose an extra 12,800 homes on mainly rural West Sussex. The ruling has serious implications for other councils as the Government begins to put into practice its forecast of the need for an extra 4.4 million houses by 2016. According to the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), other county councils are also at odds with targets for new housing laid down for them by the Government. These include Cheshire, Devon, Wiltshire, Somerset, Surrey, Norfolk, Suffolk and Hampshire.

West Sussex had argued it could build 37,900 homes, but that an additional 12,800 was an extension too far.

"It's a disappointment for West Sussex and for other counties seeking to plan for more sensible levels of future housing planning to reduce the impact of house builders on the countryside," said Neil Sinden, head of planning for the CPRE.

The point was echoed by members of West Sussex County Council. "This will have implications for all counties, rural or metropolitan," said Harold Hall, West Sussex's chairman of strategic planning. "We have a limited amount of brownfield [industrial] sites so most will have to be built in greenfield areas. It will have a big environmental impact. We will have to build more roads, new schools and they will also take up more land."

The Royal Town Planning Institute says that one million new homes will have to be built on greenfield sites, even though the Government wants to encourage the use of brownfield sites.

Somerset County Council believes it has room for no more than 44,300 houses, rather than the 50,700 new homes it has been told to build, and is preparing to submit evidence to Mr Prescott to persuade him to agree to the lower figure.

"It's all very well building houses on a derelict steelworks in Sheffield but we haven't had smoke-stack industries in Somerset. These house will have to cut into the green belt," said Somerset County Council spokesman Roger Smith. In Norfolk, the county says it can build only 61,000 new homes by 2011 - 6,000 short of the Government figure. "Of the housing that has been allocated, only 35 per cent is on brownfield land. We can't meet the national figure of 60 per cent because we're a rural county," said a spokesman.

The ruling comes at a crucial time for many councils, according to the CPRE. "Local authorities are preparing plans with figures for new housing which are lower than those laid down in planning guidance. Those councils will have to think very hard about the implications of this ruling," said Mr Sinden.

But the CPRE believes the decision does not square with the White Paper issued at the start of the year, which suggested the Government was more in favour of development of brownfield sites. It believes that Mr Prescott's hand may have been forced because the West Sussex case pre-dated the publication of the White Paper.

The House Builders Federation said the ruling would boost the construction industry. "House prices would have gone up and local first-time buyers would have been squeezed out," said a spokesman. "It would have put more pressure on neighbouring counties and London to find housing."