Prescott calls for city villages

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The Independent Online
The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, says that more than half of Britain's new homes should be built in existing urban areas rather than the countryside. Village life, he says - complete with the corner shop, the small school and the cottage hospital - should become part of the fabric of Britain's inner cities.

Until now it has seemed likely that the Government planned to support the building of many more houses in the countryside than its Tory predecessor had done. Only last week - without Mr Prescott's knowledge - a decision was taken in his absence in Japan to force West Sussex to take 13,000 homes it felt it could not accommodate.

Now, the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment has thrown his weight behind encouraging more housebuilding in the cities as a way of providing the extra 4.4 million homes said to be needed in the next five years. However, communities, he points out, are vital for urban living, and that means facilities too, such as shops. He has already talked to major supermarket chains to try to get them to open small branches to sell the same quality goods at the same low prices as their superstores.

Mr Prescott, just back from brokering the international treaty to combat global warming at Kyoto, believes his plans will be given impetus by the treaty because that will oblige governments to try to reduce the needs for people to travel by car.

He said: "Kyoto was not just about reaching a global warming agreement but about major changes in where we live, how we live and our transport system. It is about gain, not pain. People want to live in cities and we can make living there attractive. People buy houses on greenfield sites because they want a new world to go to, but when they get there they find they have to drive everywhere."

He believes that his plans, together with his programme for regional development, could be as "important historically" as the pioneering planning legislation brought in by the Attlee government after the Second World War.

Mr Prescott, who is building a revolutionary environmentally-friendly village on the Millennium site next to the infamous Dome, believes that it will provide a template for other neighbourhoods all over the country. He wants to see well-designed housing with small shops, local schools and neighbourhood hospitals linked to major hospitals with new technology.

Just how committed Mr Prescott is to urban revival will be tested shortly when he has to decide how much of Britain's new housing should go on greenfield sites in the countryside and how much on "brownfield" ones in the cities. County councils and environmentalists are concerned that some of his junior ministers want major increases in the proportion of houses built in the countryside.

Mr Prescott insists there will have to be careful balance but says he wants most of them to go in existing urban areas. The Conservative government proposed building 60 per cent there.

Last week a furious row broke out after a decision was announced in Mr Prescott's name to force West Sussex to accommodate 13,000 more homes than it felt it could fit into the county over the next 13 years. As this was the Government's first decision on this issue it was thought to set an alarming precedent.

The county council had taken particular care to work out how many extra houses its area could take and had been supported by a public inquiry. This was over-ruled by ministers, although Mr Prescott only learned of this on his return late last week.

Many counties - including Cheshire, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, Surrey and Wiltshire - also want to accommodate fewer houses than the Government has stipulated.

Yesterday, Tony Burton of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said that Mr Prescott's views were " encouraging" but he was waiting to see what happened on the ground.

The Royal Institute of British Architects said the plans were "genuinely enlightened". It added: "Building on brownfield sites is a major opportunity to do something about urban decay."

At the moment, it said, it was the young middle classes who were spurring urban renewal, but Mr Prescott could extend the opportunity to all social groups. And it offered a major opportunity for designing good houses: while identical buildings could be rolled out over the countryside, new urban housing had to be well-designed if it was going to work.