Tories come to the aid of green and pleasant land

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The Tory party has come up with a new idea for boosting house building in urban areas as it launches a campaign to save England's green belts from urban sprawl, says Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent.

The Conservative environment spokesman, Tim Yeo MP, said yesterday that house-building firms should be able to earn themselves credits for siting new homes within towns and cities, through conversions and by reclaiming derelict "brownfield" sites.

Only those companies which had built up credits would be granted planning permission to build homes on the restricted number of greenfield sites which councils did make available for development. The party believes such a system would make firms invest more effort in searching out opportunities for urban development.

"We think this is a better idea than the tax on greenfield development which the Labour government says it is considering," said Mr Yeo. "Such a tax would just legitimise building in the green belts."

Yesterday, William Hague, the Conservative leader, visited the site of the proposed green-belt development west of Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, where up to 1,000 homes could be built after the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, decided not to intervene in the county council's structure plan.

Sir Norman Fowler, Conservative spokesman on the environment, transport and regions, went to another green-belt site near Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, where Mr Prescott has intervened to allow industrial development. Mr Yeo, meanwhile, visited a site near Horsham, which could have homes built on it. West Sussex County Council is taking Mr Prescott to the High Court for a judicial review hearing after his department intervened to add 12,800 homes to its structure plan.

The Tories see the threat to the countryside as one of their biggest opportunities for rebuilding support in the wake of the election defeat.

The party's other policy for boosting house building in urban areas is to alter the statutory planning guidance handed down from government to councils. The guidance the Tories advocate for housing would set the same kind of ''sequential test'' which proposals for out-of-town shopping and leisure centres have to undergo. In essence, developers have to prove they have searched exhaustively for a suitable site in the urban area before permission can be granted.

Mr Hague said he advocated two-thirds of all new housing development taking place in towns and cities. "Not only will this protect the countryside, but it will also breathe new life into our towns and cities."