Environment: Prescott told to build more urban homes

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The Independent Online
A group of 69 Labour MPs yesterday fired a warning shot at John Prescott for allowing building in the green belt. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, reports that Tony Blair is facing a growing countryside alliance.

The Deputy Prime Minister was yesterday urged to focus building on "brownfield" sites around towns before going ahead with releasing large tracts of countryside in the green belt for housing.

The Tory Opposition will exploit growing unrest in rural constituencies - many now held by Labour MPs - with a full day's debate in the Commons on Tuesday.

Tory MPs say Labour has forged a countryside alliance against it on three fronts: among the so-called "NIMBYs" (Not In My Backyard) by threatening to allow building in the green belt; among farmers with the failure to lift the beef ban; and the country sports fraternity, with the backbench Bill to ban foxhunting. Peter Luff, the Tory MP for Mid Worcestershire, said: "Some in the countryside feel that there is a plot against them by the Government. People are very angry."

That anger will be demonstrated with a mass rally in Hyde Park on 1 March, which the Tories believe could dwarf the pro-foxhunting rally there last year, and could attract quarter of a million people from the countryside to the capital.

The Commons motion by 69 MPs - dominated by new MPs from the May 1997 intake - was couched in diplomatic language, but it will be seen as a warning shot at John Prescott and his ministers at the Department of Environment over building in the green belt.

It was tabled by David Drew, the Labour MP for Stroud, and Paddy Tipping, the Labour MP for Sherwood, who have led backbench criticism of the threat to allow expansion of building in the green belt.

Mr Drew was one of the cross-party group of MPs, including Tom King, the former Northern Ireland Secretary, which held a meeting at the Commons this week to coordinate opposition.

Many of the other Labour MPs who signed the motion represent former Tory seats with rural areas which could be under threat, including Ivor Caplin, the MP for Hove in East Sussex; Diana Organ, Forest of Dean; Vernon Coaker, Gedling; and Ben Bradshaw, Exeter.

While praising past Labour Governments for creating the green belt, their motion highlighted the importance of "making the best possible use of brownfield sites and existing buildings to meet housing demand", and called for regional planning conferences to be given more power in decisions on land for housing.

Mr Prescott has given assurances that the national ratio of housing in towns and countryside in plans inherited from the Tories will remain broadly unchanged after his report to Parliament in the next few weeks.

But the review is expected to pave the way for 4.4 million new homes and his refusal to block green belt developments at Newcastle and Stevenage has set the countryside campaigners on course for a confrontation with the Government.

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