Mutiny in Middle England

Five new cities are planned for the South-east. Residents are gearing up for hand-to-hand combat in defence of their rural dream
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The Independent Online

usiness is brisk for Tony Mullucks, the owner of one of 10 estate agents based in the market town of Bishop's Stortford, on the Hertfordshire-Essex border. Star attractions in his window include a three-bedroomed, two-reception converted almshouse in the town centre. It could be yours for £265,000. Or if you prefer a village home, a thatched cottage can be had for £269,000.

usiness is brisk for Tony Mullucks, the owner of one of 10 estate agents based in the market town of Bishop's Stortford, on the Hertfordshire-Essex border. Star attractions in his window include a three-bedroomed, two-reception converted almshouse in the town centre. It could be yours for £265,000. Or if you prefer a village home, a thatched cottage can be had for £269,000.

Mr Mullucks welcomes an influx of Londoners eager to trade in their cramped £250,000 two-bedroomed flats in the capital for the best of both worlds ­ combining rural tranquillity with a City salary. The Square Mile is less than an hour away by train to Liverpool Street, and the M11 is five minutes' drive away.

"People want to live their dream, and living in a large country home is a dream," beams Mr Mullucks. His office walls are adorned with photographs of country properties with vast manicured lawns.

But there is a price to be paid for that dream. Both the commuters wanting to live in the neighbourhood and the thousands drawn to the area by jobs at nearby booming Stansted airport are changing the rural character of north-west Essex and Hertfordshire. Roads are getting busier, house prices are rising, more homes are being built.

Local people were already saying that their neighbourhood could not cope with more people. Unlikely allies, such as Friends of the Earth and Conservative activists, were joining forces to fight more development.

Now the two counties are in shock at last week's report recommending that a new town should be built on a greenfield site near Stansted to house up to 80,000 people, as part of an increase of 1.1 million homes in the South-east by 2016. It urges Hertfordshire and Essex to build 50 per cent more homes than their councils have planned for.

The Stansted development is one of five cities for the South-east recommended by Professor Stephen Crow in his report to the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Professor Crow says homes should be available for all in the region in the interests of the national economy. Ashford , Kent, Milton Keynes and Crawley are named as possible sites.

Serplan, the strategic planning group representing councils across the South-east, says the 12 counties surrounding the M25 cannot absorb the level of housing recommended by Crow. It predicts "hand-to-hand combat" at public inquiries if Prescott accepts the report.

The people of Bishop's Stortford, who say their rural way of life is under threat, are gearing up for a fight. Retired architect Cedric Thomas, vice chairman of the Campaign Against Unsustainable Stortford Expansion, says the town's population has swelled by 71 per cent to 31,000 in 20 years, with little infrastructural improvement to support population growth. Mr Thomas was already fighting a proposed edge-of-town development for 3,000 new houses when the full implications of the Crow report hit home last week.

"The town is already approaching gridlock and is becoming more difficult to use, especially on Saturdays. It has a medieval street pattern with narrow roads and tight corners. To put more houses into the area, generating more people and traffic, doesn't make any sense."

Down the road is the hamlet of Bedlar's Green, part of Great Hallingbury, four miles from the end of Stansted's runway. There the parish council chairman, general secretary of the local preservation society, Conservative activist and veteran anti-airport campaigner Norman Mead fumes at the idea of the new town, which he thinks will be on farmland in nearby Takeley.

Stansted, with its 15 million passengers a year, is already Britain's third busiest airport, and giant planes on their final approach to Stansted's runway roar over the village hall. It drowns conversation as Mr Mead and his wife Beryl, who produces the parish magazine, sip tea out of china cups as they describe how the airport and its voracious growth have overshadowed their lives for 20 years.

"We've got the most civilised way of life around here; it's a way of life less civilised societies would love to have, and all we can do is destroy it," rails Mr Mead.

Behind their home is the National Trust-owned Hatfield Forest, an ancient and protected site where they can hear the local fox hunt in action. Deer and badgers visit their garden.

Many of the most vociferous campaigners against further development in the countryside are themselves people who moved there seeking a quieter life. Mr Thomas, for example, was a London-based architect and commuted there every day from his chalet bungalow in Bishop's Stortford. The Meads moved to Bedlar's Green from Harlow New Town, where they lived for 18 years,

"The new town life is a very artificial one of concrete and right angles. You can't build communities just because you build a town square; they have to evolve," says Mr Mead.

Architect Graham Morrison agrees. "Developers look at houses as commodities. They don't understand the structure of a village. They just plonk down curly roads that only suit suburbia."

Mr Morrison, whose partnership Allies and Morrison is responsible for refurbishing the Festival Hall and has designed village housing, said: "It's important to introduce variety, but you need to integrate your design. In Kent, for example, we designed housing in a new right-angled lane for the village because that was how all the lanes were there."

Steve Bailes, Hampshire county council's special projects officer, says that John Prescott can expect six months of fierce lobbying while he decides what to do about the Crow report.

He says its Stansted proposal represents a total change of planning policy towards the area. "These little villages and lanes will come under more and more intense pressure. This is old England, and it won't be able to adapt to modern pressures and maintain its character."

Marion Shoard, an environment planning specialist and author of This Land Is Our Land, predicts the extra homes in the South-east won't be attractive for long. "As technology improves to enable more to choose where to live and work, they won't want to live in overcrowded places. Time is running out for these houses, so why should we build them at all?"

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