The fight for green Britain

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Eco-warriors and roads protesters are now turning against housebuilding in the countryside - planning occupations and tunnels on green-belt building sites. The Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's decision not to stop a massive housing development in Hertfordshire has raised the stakes, says Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent.

From bypasses to semis: direct-action protesters say the time has come to shift from trying to stop roads - where they have won propaganda and policy successes - to blocking new houses on greenfield sites.

Residents trying to save the fields in their back yard show every sign of welcoming them. And more traditional campaigning groups, like Friends of the Earth, have no objections.

Supporters of Earth First! are expected to attend a London conference today of groups fighting housing plans, organised by FoE and the road- protest group Alarm UK. The House Builders Federation is drawing up plans to defend its central London office from an invasion by Swampy-style activists.

Paul de Luce, an Earth First! supporter and veteran of the Twyford Down and Newbury bypass protests, said: ''Direct action against housebuilding in rural areas is a natural progression. I'm expecting it to be more frequent and larger than with roads because it will have more support from local people."

The stakes were raised yesterday when John Prescott said he would not to stand in the way of plans to build up to 10,000 new homes on farmland west of Stevenage. At 800 hectares, it will be one of the biggest single losses of green-belt land since the designation was introduced 60 years ago to prevent urban sprawl.

''It's outrageous,'' said Friends of the Earth. The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), said it had not seen such bad decisions since Nicholas Ridley was environment secretary in the Eighties.

Mr Prescott, Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions yesterday told The Independent he accepted Hertfordshire's argument that building many of the new homes the county needed in fields just outside Stevenage was the best environmental option.

''It just made a lot of sense,'' he said. People living in the new residential area, the size of a small town, would be able to work and shop in nearby Stevenage and use its public transport infrastructure of buses and trains, thereby minimising extra travelling and pollution.

But, in general, preserving the green belt remained ''almost sacrosanct'', Mr Prescott said. Next month he will publish a document setting out how the Government would encourage new housing on derelict land within cities and minimise the need to build on out-of-town sites.''The renaissance and attractiveness of cities is absolutely crucial for this government,'' he said.

Environmentalists still have high hopes of the document, but Tony Burton, housing campaigner with the CPRE, said the Hertfordshire decision ''locks us in to continued damage to the countryside".

Environmentalists were as appalled by Mr Prescott's decision last month to order West Sussex County Council to find room for an extra 12,800 homes to be built between 1994 and 2011 - a third more than the county claims it can cope with.

In Peacehaven, East Sussex, only a High Court challenge by Lewes District Council is stopping 113 private homes being built in a rural valley north of the seaside town. The development is fiercely opposed by the town council and local residents. They have voted in favour of direct action, and have welcomed the support of visiting eco-activists.

The Government is projecting a demand for 4.4 million extra homes in England by 2016 - a 23 per cent increase. Striking the right balance between developing in and outside cities looks set to be one of its biggest environmental challenges.