Goodbye Berkshire, hello Readingstoke

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The Independent Online
A CITY THAT doesn't yet exist is the focus of the latest battle in the war for the soul of rural England. Now it's a drawing in the developer's office; but soon it could be Readingstoke - a sprawling metropolis created by concreting over the countryside between Reading in Berkshire and Basingstoke in Hampshire.

If the builders get the go-ahead, 15 miles of open fields will be swallowed up. The villagers of Grazeley, all 70 of them, will have 6,000 new neighbours and will probably lose their prized village green.

Both sides accept that Britain needs more houses, but violently disagree where they should be built. Demographers believe about four million new homes will be required by 2016. At issue is whether space can be found on brownfield, inner-city sites or whether it will be necessary to encroach into the green belt.

The battle of Readingstoke is crucial because both sides accept that its outcome will influence future planning applications.

Villagers, backed by the environmental lobby, say development would destroy English country life, create traffic congestion and increase pollution.

The developers, a consortium of Alfred McAlpine, Taylor Woodrow and Persimmon Homes, point to the demand for new homes in the area. People want to live around the M4 corridor because there is high employment and good road links with the rest of the country. A new industrial centre is currently under construction west of Reading, creating jobs and increased demand for new homes.

Opposition has come from 32 parish councils and the Readingstoke Action Group, comprising local villagers and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. "People are fed up to the back teeth with the number of houses and cars we already have around here," said Tony Wiseman, chairman of the group. "The traffic is on a knife edge. It only needs one accident or breakdown to gum everything up."

The protesters are aware of the demand for new housing, said Mr Wiseman. "We're not nimbies, we've absorbed a lot of development and we're willing to take more. But it's got to be done in a sustainable way."

The CPRE believes an important planning principle is at stake. When the M4 was built in 1967, a commitment was given by Berkshire County Council that the arable land and open countryside south of the motorway would remain rural - effectively an unofficial green belt. Since then, the M4 has been a barrier, limiting development southwards. But in 1996 John Gummer, then the environment secretary, instructed Berkshire to find land for 2,500 homes.

"For the past three decades developers have not been allowed to leapfrog the M4 and head south into Hampshire," said Tony Burton, assistant director of the CPRE. "It has been a very important psychological and physical barrier and has often been used to restrain development. If you break that barrier then you don't know where it will stop."

The local authority, Wokingham District Council, feels its hand has been forced by central government. "We've always been against building south of the M4," said Nigel Rose, chairman of the council's environmental services committee. "But faced with the inevitability of it, we feel Grazeley is the least worst option."

A public inquiry into the scheme, which continues until October, will test the Government's preference, outlined last week by Planning minister Richard Caborn, that developers should build in cities where possible and only turn to countryside when there are no industrial or brownfield sites available in existing towns.

But Mr Rose fears it will be too late for Grazeley: "We don't have the kind of heritage that Manchester or Sheffield do and there's not much industrial land around here."

Mr Burton said: "Grazeley is very much a last resort. You don't have to just accept the projection about the need for more housing. There is a wonderful opportunity to build in towns and cities rather than on an attractive stretch of countryside which will only create more traffic.

"This is good old English countryside. If we continue to introduce these sorts of developments then the sense of being away from cities will be lost."

Sir Peter Hall, chairman of the Town and Country Planning Association, said that it was "nonsense" to think that development on greenfield sites could be avoided: "The best figure the Government has been able to come up with for the new houses is to build 60 per cent on brownfield. That leaves 40 per cent on greenfield and a lot of that will be in the South- east. There's a real need for new housing in Berkshire and it can't be done on brownfield land. The Grazeley site is on the edge of an urban area and near the motorway. There really can't be any objection to it. "