For sale: rare green belt, offers to Labour

Conservationists fear the Government is turning its back on the countryside.
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The Independent Online
Gamston Pits and Adbolton Marsh form a leafy, green oasis in the heart of the East Midlands. Nottingham people who enjoy the tranquillity of the waterlands and their wildfowl have always believed that the area was protected because it was part of the green belt.

Nottinghamshire County Council thinks otherwise. So keen is it to see the waterfowl's little paradise disappear that it has written to every local MP urging them to back a bid to build a National Academy of Sport there. Behind the pounds 158m project is the Central Consortium Group - which includes the Labour-controlled council.

It expects the sports minister, Tony Banks, to decide in the next two weeks to give the go-ahead.

The Nottingham case is just one of several across Britain involving hundreds of acres of green belt which are under threat. Once it was developers who were keen to build houses on greener edges of towns and cities. Now it is New Labour.

For the past 50 years, green belts have been a cornerstone of conservation, stopping urban sprawl. Now, several Labour councils are taking, or proposing to take, land out of the green belt for housing. They include Leeds, Bradford, Newcastle upon Tyne, Hertfordshire, and Hillingdon in west London.

The situation is so serious that conservationists doubt Labour's commitment to preserving the countryside and the green belt. They fear that, instead of rebuilding in city centres, Labour authorities want to build on the edge of towns to accommodate the predicted 4.4 million extra households needed by 2016.

Of even greater concern are cases emerging where local authorities appear to benefit from the sale of land in the green belt. In the West Midlands, a 140-acre chunk of green-belt farmland at Peddimore, near Sutton Coldfield, is to be used for an industrial estate after the Deputy Prime Minister and Environment Secretary, John Prescott, overturned a public-inquiry report and backed Birmingham council's plan for development. Wildlife campaigners and opposition politicians were outraged that the Labour-controlled council not only wanted green-belt development but would also benefit from the sale.

Mr Prescott's decision, slipped out just after Parliament had gone into recess, meant that the value of the land soared to pounds 28m,according to Birmingham estate agents. It appalled conservationists such as Friends of the Earth. FoE spokesman Tony Juniper said: "There are plenty of inner-city degraded areas that could benefit from this kind of development. Why is Mr Prescott putting it in the green belt where everyone has to drive to it?"

The shadow Environment Secretary, Sir Norman Fowler, described the decision to develop the site as leaving the green belt "in tatters". He said: "The Peddimore site is not marginal green belt. It is farmland. If such land can be used for industrial development, very little is safe. The message is that the green belt is now under threat."

Farther north, in Doncaster, the fate of the green belt is inextricably linked with the scandal surrounding the ruling Labour group. A 20-strong team of South Yorkshire police, the District Auditor, representatives of Labour's National Executive Committee and the council's own officials are holding inquiries into allegations ranging from club-class junkets to development in the green belt.

Last week, Doncaster council's director of planning was suspended pending further investigations by the inquiry team. David Ellis is understood to have asked his staff to dilute a list of their concerns over green- belt land being turned into housing estates. He is also believed to have allowed councillors to pressure him into accepting their wishes over officers' recommendations.

One such councillor was Bill Gillies, who has been suspended following allegations that he wrote twice to Mr Ellis instructing him to make it easier for a developer friend to build a house on green-belt land.

The planning committee chairman, Peter Birks, has also been investigated over allegations that he was living in a farmhouse bought by a developer who was allowed to turn a protected poppy field into an upmarket housing estate, despite dogged opposition from villagers.

Under the previous government the green belt doubled in scale, with the largest additional areas in the North and the Midlands.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England believes that the green belt has never been under so much threat.

"There is more encroachment than ever before," said the CPRE spokesman, Tony Burton. "While we would hope that Labour would support urban renewal, it seems entirely willing to see new development in areas that should be preserved.

"The green belt has been a highly successful planning device and now it under attack."