Richard Rogers heads environment task force

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The Independent Online
LORD ROGERS of Riverside, the leading architect and Labour peer, is to be appointed by John Prescott to head a task force to help restore the green credentials of Tony Blair's government and defuse a row over the countryside before a mass protest march in London.

Mr Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and Regions, will announce today that Richard Rogers has agreed to help the Government identify derelict and redundant brownfield sites in towns, where more housing could be built to remove the pressure for housing in the green belt.

"Lord Rogers is obviously a man with drive. His job will be to identify all those brownfield sites where development could take place. It will help local authorities, or give them a kick up the backside if they need it," said a source.

Mr Prescott will also tell MPs that he is adopting a new policy requiring at least 60 per cent of all housing to be built on brownfield sites. A windfall tax on building on the green belt is being considered but will not be in the Chancellor's Budget on 17 March.

Mr Prescott's friends believe that the Deputy Prime Minister's long-awaited statement to the Commons will spike William Hague's Tory guns, which were lining up to give the Government a pounding in advance of the countryside march next Sunday. "It will be a killer blow for the Tories because they put 60 per cent in their own election manifesto," the source said.

The march is organised by the Countryside Alliance, which is promising it will eclipse last summer's pro-hunting rally in Hyde Park. A total of 1,900 buses have been hired in a show of strength aimed at forcing ministers to retreat on a range of issues affecting the countryside, including a threat to ban foxhunting with a Labour Private Member's Bill.

The environment minister Michael Meacher will announce a further concession to the countryside lobby on Wednesday with a consultation paper holding back the threat of legislation to enforce a right to roam. The Green Paper will give landowners time to co-operate by giving more access to ramblers and it will exclude cultivated land, and possibly grouse moors during the breeding season.

In a decision likely to cause some ruffled hairs among the ramblers, the right to roam will not be extended to dogs. A source was quoted as saying: "New Labour is all about rights and responsibilities. If we give the dogs rights, how do we explain to them that they have responsibilities as well?"

Mr Prescott, writing in the Independent on Sunday yesterday, said he would be announcing a more "flexible" approach to planning, allowing groups of councils in the country's eight regions to draw up their own plans for how many new houses they can accommodate, and abandoning the imposition of plans from Whitehall to "predict and provide" growth in housing.

The Deputy Prime Minister also disclosed that he wants to develop four or five millennium villages in Britain on the lines of the plans he announced last week for a site close to the millennium Dome in Greenwich, south- east London.

In a move that will remind supporters of his old Labour credentials, Mr Prescott also announced at the weekend that he is appointing a trade union group chaired by John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general workers union, to provide advice to the Government on the environment, and its impact on industry and jobs. It follows private criticism from trade union leaders, including Rodney Bickerstaff of Unison, that Tony Blair appeared to be taking more advice from bosses than unions.

Mr Prescott answered criticism of his decision to allow green-belt housing in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, at a meeting of the Socialist Environment and Resources Association. He said the housing would be close to a railway station, and was one of the tough choices to be made to fulfil the pledges made at the summit in Kyoto, Japan, to halt global warming.