Spread of Silicon Valley transforms greenery into `suburban nightmare'

ONE OF THE staunchest barriers to housebuilding in the unspoilt countryside of southern England may come down as a result of a major planning enquiry starting tomorrow.

It is the M4 motorway, which for over 20 years has acted as a natural limit to the spread southwards of one big town, Reading in Berkshire, towards another one 15 miles away, Basingstoke in Hampshire.

It is a barrier that has held back some of the severest pressure for development in all of Britain. Now it is about to be breached: a substantial new settlement of 2,500 houses is being planned in green fields south of the motorway.

Local campaigners fear that this will open the gates to urbanisation of the whole stretch of picturesque countryside between the two towns, a vision of awfulness they have termed Readingstoke.

Thirty-two parish councils have joined together with the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) to fight the proposals, which they say make a nonsense of the Government's new-found commitment to allow house building on greenfield sites only as a last resort.

The inquiry, which may last a year or more, will indeed be seen as a vital test case of the willingness of the Environment Secretary, John Prescott, to back up with action his words last February that "it is our firm policy to protect our countryside ... by maximising the use of recycled land."

Mr Prescott will himself take the ultimate decision as to whether or not the M4 barrier should fall.

The motorway has been treated by Berkshire County Council planners as a sensitive and natural boundary to the countryside ever since it was built in the 1970s. Successive proposals for large-scale housing development beyond the M4 have hitherto all been rejected.

But the M4 is also the problem: it is the artery of England's "Silicon Valley", the band of development of hi-tech industries along its length from west London almost to Bristol, that have brought jobs and prosperity to the area - and a huge demand for housing.

Berkshire as a result has suffered the severest development pressure of any English county, with dire results.

"It's always been the place that everyone else didn't want to copy," said Tony Burton, the CPRE's assistant director for policy. "It's been asked to accept very, very high levels of development for 20 to 30 years, and so the whole character of the county has changed out of all recognition.

The loss of the identity of Berkshire's settlements, the blurring and merging together of Wokingham, Bracknell and Reading, has turned what was countryside into a world of suburban estates and mini-roundabouts."

Until now, southern Berkshire has been immune and remained green and properly rural, thanks to its M4 defence line. But housing pressure finally spilled over it with the drawing up of the Berkshire County Structure Plan in 1995, when the then Conservative Environment Secretary, John Gummer, ordered the county council to accept 40,000 new houses instead of the 37,000 it firmly believed was the the maximum that could be built without serious environmental damage. The extra 3,000 houses, the council warned, would have to go south of the M4, but Mr Gummer insisted anyway.

Wokingham District Council is now the planning authority charged with locating them, and its preferred site for 2,500 centres on the hamlet of Grazeley, a tiny village sitting in the fields with a pub, a church and a village hall.

If the development by a consortium of Persimmon, Taylor Woodrow and McAlpine goes ahead, Grazeley will be expanded a hundredfold over the surrounding countryside.

Two further sites in the area have been proposed by other consortia, at Spencers Wood and Shinfield, and the inquiry will examine their competing claims. The district council takes the view that this is all it can do, and that the principle of development south of the M4 has already been established.

But the campaigners disagree and are preparing an energetic challenge. "This inquiry has important national implications," said Edward Dawson, who is a committee member of the action group. "It is really testing whether the greenfield sites policy, that Mr Prescott announced in February, works or not.

"We all have a nightmare vision of Readingstoke, of Reading joining up with Basingstoke and the countryside in between being destroyed. "The campaigners are planning to put forward an alternative brownfield site for the development, north of the motorway.

On Friday the local MP, John Redwood, the Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, was applauded by Grazeley's villagers when he planted an oak tree on the village green to symbolise their determination to fight.

"People have had enough of seeing the green fields of Berkshire built over," he said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...