Homes review poses threat to green belt

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The Independent Online
Michael Meacher, the Minister for the Environment, yesterday said the Government would save the English countryside from destruction by urban sprawl as more than 4 million new households are formed in the next 20 years.

"Certainly the last thing we could ever wish to see would be the Los Angelisation of the UK countryside," he said. "No one is going to disagree with that."

But he said the Government was reviewing targets set by the last Tory government for at least 60 per cent of all new homes to be built within existing towns and cities rather than on green fields and woods.

"These are early days, and what the proportion which really can be built inside urban areas is far from being established," he said. "No one is in a position yet to make such assertions."

Plans to build homes in open countryside in the Home Counties - the area where there is most pressure to develop - aroused intense passions in the Eighties, and are expected to do so again as a building boom gets under way thanks to the spectacular recovery of the housing market.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, faces challenges from several county councils who have been telling him the Government has allocated them too many new homes to be built in the first 10 years of the next century. He will have to decide whether to order them to identify land needed to accommodate the extra housing.

One such county is Hampshire, where there has been massive housebuilding over the past 20 years. The Tory government told planners to find room for 56,000 extra households in its long-range structure plan, but Hampshire reckoned it only needed to provide enough for 44,000. Now a government- appointed panel has told the county to accept the higher figure.

While rural building targets might once have been of little interest to Labour, they now matter because with its massive majority it holds many of the seats which might be affected. The issue was highlighted at the weekend by reports that Nick Raynsford, the minister for London and planning in the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, has rejected the 60 per cent target - so that a higher proportion of new homes would be built in the countryside.

But while it is true that before the election Mr Raynsford, one of Labour's leading experts on housing and planning, had expressed doubts about the target, the Government as a whole is still months off making a final decision on the issue.

Environment ministers recently met at Dorneywood, the Chancellor's countryside residence, to be briefed on the issue by civil servants.

While some groups - the Town and Country Planning Association and representatives of housebuilding firms - claim the 60 per cent target is far too high and would overcrowd cities, environmental organisations like the Council for the Protection of Rural England say it is too low.

Planners' vote

to be rerun

The director of the Town and Country Planning Association has resigned amid allegations of ballot rigging which have forced the rerun of elections to its board, writes Louise Jury.

Tim Cordy, the paid head of the body which represents local authorities and other planning officials, stood down after voting irregularities were found. Questions were raised after the results in a bundle of papers which arrived late on the last day of the ballot were significantly different from the rest. Mr Cordy accepts responsibility for failing to run the vote properly. The ballot papers had not been numbered.

The Electoral Reform Society has been asked to oversee a new ballot.