`No need' for rural housing growth

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The Independent Online
PLANS ALREADY made to set aside huge amounts of the countryside for housing should be reversed, the Government's Urban Task Force will say tomorrow in its long-awaited blueprint for the revival of Britain's cities.

The high-powered commission, chaired by the architect Lord Rogers of Riverside, will suggest that large amounts of the millions of acres of green fields allocated for future housebuilding by local councils in their development plans should be "de-allocated", where specific planning permission has not already been granted.

The idea is likely to meet with fierce objections both from builders and from housing pressure groups, but it will be warmly welcomed by the environmental lobby.

It will be one of the most controversial of the numerous proposals the task force will advance as ways of reversing the population drift away from towns and cities, and halting the resultant urban sprawl over much of the countryside, especially in England's overcrowded south-east.

The task force's 300-page report will be launched tomorrow by Lord Rogers, designer of the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, south-east London, and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Prescott has said he wants to see 60 per cent of all new homes built on brownfield sites - previously developed land in the towns and cities.

The report will reveal how much of the greenfield land in the countryside already earmarked for housing has planning permission - and would thus qualify its owners for compensation if it were "dezoned". Much of the acreage set aside does not yet have it, it will say.

Another controversial recommendation will be that VAT on materials for building new houses (at present zero) and for restoring old ones (at present 17.5 per cent) be made the same. The task force would like VAT on restoration and repair also brought to zero, but European Union law prevents the tax, once levied, from being scrapped completely. The report recognises it may only be possible to reduce it to 5 per cent - in which case, harmonisation would mean VAT of 5 per cent on all new houses.

Lord Rogers and his colleagues do not pretend that no new houses must be built in the countryside, but they are suggesting a whole range of financial carrots and sticks to put the focus on towns and cities. The incentives range from offering lower council tax to residents and tax breaks to businesses in urban areas, to providing direct grants to encourage building on contaminated land.

The report, reflecting Lord Rogers' personal concerns, also puts an unprecedented emphasis on building design. However, Lord Rogers has come in for criticism recently with the rise of his latest project, Montevetro, a 20-storey tower of luxury flats overshadowing the riverside at Battersea in south-west London.

Today, The Independent's architecture correspondent Nonie Niesewand also takes issue with Lord Rogers about the implications of another of his projects, a 30,000sq ft shopping centre on the edge of Ashford, Kent, with parking for 3,000 cars and buses.


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