Historic challenge to the nation's Green Belt

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A vast housing development on farmland in the Home Counties has been given the go-ahead - the biggest challenge to the Green Belt for a generation. Nicholas Schoon says that the Government will come under intense pressure to reverse a decision whichcould open the floodgates for new waves of suburban sprawl.

Hertfordshire County Council is planning up to 10,000 new homes on Green Belt land near Stevenage - in effect, a new small town. It brings the debate about where to build the huge quantity of new homes needed in Britain over the next two decades to boiling point.

Not only is it one of the biggest single developments on rural land being contemplated in Britain since the last generation of New Towns. More importantly, at 800 hectares, it would be the biggest single loss of Green Belt land for decades.

The Government is projecting a demand for 4.4 million extra homes by 2016 - a 23 per cent increase.The new Government's policy is that the forecasts are realistic and the demand should be met. So if they are to be built then many of them will have to go on greenfield sites. The awkward question is - how many?

Green groups and local residents are pressing John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, to intervene and over-rule Hertfordshire's decision. His Tory predecessor John Gummer, joined them.

Mr Gummer, now a back bench Tory MP, said: ``If you give developers the cheaper, easier option of building on greenfield they will always go for it - you have it to make it much harder for them, and much easier for them to choose derelict and urban sites.''

Environmentalists agreed. ``Labour must call in this development,'' said Simon Festing of the Friends of the Earth. Neil Sinden, of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said: ``The Government's household growth projections are a real threat to the continued role of green belts, which have had huge public support for decades.''

For many years, Conservative and Labour governments have regarded the Green Belts as sacrosanct. The designation, which keeps rural land around big cities free of development, dates back to 1938. It has been the main weapon of both national and local planners in stopping towns from growing outwards ever further and joining together.

But the policy is under unprecedented strain. Many towns surrounded by belts have now grown right up to the inside edge of them. There is little countryside left inside, and what there is likely to be fiercely protected by residents.

Each year, an area of countryside the size of Bristol is urbanised. Census statistics show that each day 300 people leave Britain's biggest cities to live in rural areas.

About half of all new housing development now happens in previously developed areas, chiefly on redundant and derelict sites inside towns. The last Government wanted to push this proportion up to 60 per cent; the new one has not yet decided whether to accept this target.

In Hertfordshire, more than half the county's remaining countryside has been designated as Green Belt, giving it extra protection from development. The county council has been drawing up its Structure Plan, a strategic blueprint covering the period 1991 to 2011. A government-appointed inspector has already approved the bulk of it after a public inquiry, including the loss of Green Belt. The plan cleared one of its final hurdles on Tuesday when the council's Environment Committee voted to submit it for a final round of consultation.

It was passed by just one vote, with councillors of the ruling Labour- Liberal Democrat coalition defeating the Conservatives. It will be for the smaller district councils in Hertfordshire to implement the structure plan as they grant planning permission to developers.

Thousands of people have objected and the development will make Stevenage almost merge with nearby Hitchin - something the Green Belt was meant to stop. But the county argues that it has little choice. Much more urban building would mean ``town cramming'' and the loss of parks and playing fields.