Country: A battleground to be

Is this where 3,000 new houses belong, asks Jack O'Sullivan
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The Independent Online
The view from Heather Bryant's home in the heart of rural Hampshire is of a huge waving cornfield. A vast forested area, known as Black Wood, lies on the horizon. Deer roam in it, and can occasionally be seen in the open countryside, racing for cover. In the big skies over Micheldever Station - a scatter of houses, barely enough to count as a village in that great empty space in the middle of England's second largest county, almost equidistant between Andover, Winchester and Basingstoke - there are plenty of buzzards, and occasionally you will spot an owl. Plover are nesting nearby and many pairs of the much-mourned skylark can be found in the area.

Mrs Bryant fled here from London seven years ago, with her husband, Philip, a public relations consultant, and their two children. This rural backwater, which sprouted a pub and a few cottages when the railway came through in 1845 and then settled back into obscurity, was just what she needed.

Her dream, however, is under threat. A plan put forward by Eagle Star, financial giants of the City, who own this land, would replace the cornfield with the busy square of a new town of 3,000 houses and everything that comes with them. "It will be horrendous," laments Mrs Bryant. "I'll be so close I'll be able to yell my orders across to Safeways."

"Micheldever Station Market Town" is what Bill Bromwich, Eagle Star's project manager, quaintly calls the site. He has lobbied to build it on 1200 acres of farmland for seven years. And even if he gets the quickest possible go-ahead, by the end of the century, it will take at least 15 years to build. This new town is his life's work. And a few days ago he gained a fillip. After a six-week inquiry, held in public, an independent panel of inspectors offered a stark choice to the county council if it is to meet the county's housing needs: either the new town, or a huge housing estate on the northern edge of historic Winchester...

Suddenly, this forgotten railway stop is a cause celebre. Now that the national roads programme has come to a standstill, the next eco-war will focus on housing and how to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of extra households which are expected to arise in the next century through divorce, longevity and singletons living alone. The row over Micheldever Station is just one example of many conflicts breaking out all over England.

Only this week it emerged that Slad Valley, the love of Laurie Lee's life, will, if planners get their way, gain a new town as a neighbour in the nearby Painswick Valley, a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. "Unless we take action now, we face losing whole swathes of our best countryside," says Simon Festing, leading the opposition campaign for Friends of the Earth.

No-one knows which way the new government, and in particular the minister responsible, John Prescott, will jump on these issues. Clearly, with nasty memories of tower-block town cramming by previous Labour administrations, the Government will not be cowed by rural nimbyism into letting the inner cities take the strain. The people of Micheldever wait to see. Swampy and his friends are no doubt sharpening their spades.

For, if it comes to it, they will have to dig their way to victory. There will be no point climbing trees - Bill Bromwich says he will not be cutting them down. He has already been planting more to enhance the would-be townscape. A botanist by training, he's ready to take on the environmentalists.

For a start, "It's no picture-postcard village," he says - and he's right. Instead of pesticide and nitrate ridden intensive farming around Micheldever Station, which barely a butterfly survives, he speaks of increasing biodiversity by reintroducing chalkland species in the new town's open spaces. He promises a beautiful park, environmentally-friendly waste management, the covenanting of surrounding land to prevent sprawl.

The existing local road and rail network will, he says, suffice for the new town's needs. And it will be designed with pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, not cars, in mind. In his freesheet, Talk of the Town, Mr Bromwich offers "shire certificates" to local people, entitling them to first choice of new housing. And he pledges that 20 per cent of the properties will be handed over as social housing to Housing Associations, with lots of new jobs to boot.

It's an exciting prospect: a town built with proper amenities rather than one of those awful estates with a supermarket and nothing else. The patter lulls you into forgetting that Mr Bromwich is proposing a mini- revolution in the heart of Hampshire, for the sake of a few thousand houses, barely a dent in the county's estimated requirement of 56,000.

"If ever there was a site designed for a new settlement in the south of England, this is it," he declares. And then you remember that Eagle Star bought the land for a song a generation ago and stands to make a fortune. They would, says Mr Bromwich obligingly, happily build 5,000, even 8,000, whatever is needed.

Against him is ranged Clive Dixon, war veteran and chairman of the parish council, who has lived as a tenant on his family farm since 1927. Eagle Star is his landlord. Walking from his elegant 18th century house, surrounded by topiary designed by a long-forgotten predecessor, Mr Dixon looks over hundreds of his acres of arable land, as far as the eye can see, which could soon be buried under bricks and mortar.

"I can't see how a new town will improve the wildlife," he says. "I don't see any wildlife in Swindon or Newbury High Street." He's worried about the population of English grey partridge, which thrived under the previous owner, Lord Rank (the former J Arthur Rank of film fame), who liked to shoot. "Splendid chap. Liked me to keep the hedges high so the birds had something to hide behind."

He doesn't have much faith in covenants or promises that the town will be limited. "They're not worth the paper they're written on. New towns always grow. Look at Milton Keynes: it now takes in 13 villages. All this is really bad luck. Our children will not know the pleasures of the countryside. Once this new town is built, it will trigger a process which will link up Basingstoke and Winchester in one long development, a millennium city, stretching all the way to Southampton."

This is apocalyptic language which Mr Bromwich, in his very reasonable way, rejects, as indeed did the independent panel of experts. But, as Heather Bryant contemplates Safeways moving into her rural idyll, she suggests another solution. Why, she wonders, can't all the villages in Hampshire build 20 or 30 houses and together meet the shortfall. "We've done this locally. Why can't others? Then we wouldn't have to scar the countryside." The deer, the plover and buzzards of Micheldever await a reply.