Rural crisis: Urban sprawl - Inch by inch, England's green and pleasant land is slowly disappearing

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The Independent Online
Why, suddenly, are there big concerns about housebuilding in the countryside? It has been happening for centuries and nine tenths of Britain is still rural. Nicholas Schoon explains what is at stake.

In England, the most urbanised of the UK nations, 11 per cent of the land area is now covered in buildings, roads, parking spaces and gardens. By 2016, after room is found for the now notorious 4.4 million extra households being forecast, that proportion is expected to grow to just 12 per cent.

So why all the fuss? The main reason is that it is the countryside most people live close to, green fields and woods near towns and cities, which has been changing and shrinking most quickly.

There are miles of new roads and old ones are much busier. Numerous malls and factories, even whole new towns, are scattered through it. It is a countryside which is noisier It has more planes above it, in skies brightly lit at night by orange glare.

There are large tracts of land around London and other big cities which, while mostly green and neither urban nor suburban, cannot be considered countryside. Some call it "rurbia". People fear that both this and the suburbs will keep on spreading, and they wonder what will be left for posterity.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England has been monitoring the loss of ``tranquil areas''. It defines such areas as countryside at least three kilometres from the busiest motorways, one kilometre from main roads, and away from the main noise "footprint" of airports. The council estimates that while 70 per cent of England's total area was tranquil in the 1960s that had fallen to 56 per cent by the 1990s.

The Council says there are only three areas of really extensive rural tranquillity now left in England - north Devon and neighbouring land in Somerset and Cornwall, the Welsh Marches, and the north Pennines.

The Green Belts, begun around London 60 years ago, were intended to stop cities spreading ever outwards and merging into other towns. Almost all building was banned in a belt of land circling the city. Today, new Green Belt land is still being designated and the total area covered is equal to that which is urbanised.

It was a crude, popular and fairly effective planning tool. One big drawback is that development spawned by the proximity of big cities has leapfrogged the Green Belt to sprawl over the less protected countryside just beyond it. East Berkshire is one example.

Now many towns and cities have crept up to the inner edge of their green belts. Some town and county councils want to remove the sacred status from parts of them to allow homes, factories and warehouses to be built. Last week Newcastle and Bradford finalised strategic plans to do so; John Prescott, Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, decided not to stop them.

While some Green Belt land is erased, councils often designate extra further out. But having decided to erase Green Belt once, why should they not do so once again, after a few more decades of outward sprawl?

Millions more homes are going to be needed in the next 20 years given current trends towards smaller households, with people living longer, adults choosing to live alone for years before they marry, and a high divorce rate.

In the last half century, millions of people have moved out of the cities into smaller towns and the countryside. The children they raised have now grown up and, also living in smaller households, require huge numbers of new homes.

Mr Prescott says he wants as many of the new homes as possible to be built within cities using derelict sites. But some of the areas under most pressure, such an new towns and country towns, have very little derelict land. So should the new homes be created in centres, above shops, and in underused offices, or by squeezing extra units into the suburbs by encouraging more conversions of houses into flats?

He has to decide on new policies, and whether to set a new target for the spilt between greenfield and urban sites. A document is expected next month.