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
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor