Local councils are on course to build houses on an area of green belt land bigger than Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton combined, countryside campaigners warn in research published today.
A study of local authorities' long-term Structure Plans by the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) shows that nearly three million more homes are needed in England and suggests that councils' willingness to allocate precious green land instead of brownfield sites will remove tracts of countryside from counties such as Kent, Devon and Lancashire.
The study suggests that more than 431 sq km (166 sq miles) are earmarked for development, though the final area of countryside consumed could be greater. The CPRE's calculation of the land needed is based on achieving 25 homes per hectare, though some developers manage fewer than 20.
Inevitably, the green land hardest hit will be in the Southeast, where up to a third of the new homes are needed. Surrey needs at least 2,300 homes a year and Essex more than 5,000. Hampshire must build 80,290 homes by 2011 and identify land for another 14,000.
Devon must build some 65,000 homes by 2016 and the CPRE says about half will be on green sites. Of particular concern is a 3,500-home greenfield development outside Plymouth, which is being planned while several run-down brownfield sites in the city are in need of development.
Even in the North-west, where the post-industrial legacy includes England's greatest concentration of derelict brownfield sites, Lancashire County Council plans to build 11,000 homes on greenfield sites, the CPRE data says.
The warning is issued weeks before John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, sets out the Government's proposals for housing and planning policy in the Communities Plan for England. He must balance the case for about 250,000 new homes in the South-east – mainly in four growth areas: Ashford in Kent, Thames Gateway, Milton Keynes Quadrangle and the London-Stansted- Cambridge M11 Corridor – with the need to rescue collapsing, derelict areas in the North and the Midlands.
The Deputy Prime Minister has already issued a density directive, which came into force last month, under which new developments in the South-east must include no fewer than 30 homes per hectare.
But the same rules do not exist in the rest of England – an issue of concern to the CPRE, which says 750,000 empty homes and at least 66,000 hectares of developed land and buildings are in need of redevelopment.
Mr Prescott's office rejected the scale of the problem, insisting last night that the municipal Structure Plans cited by the CPRE pre-dated both the density directive and revised planning guidance for councils, which calls for at least 60 per cent of new homes to be built on brownfield sites.
But this target is also inadequate, according to the CPRE, which says that even if the Government met this target, it would still need about 50,000 hectares of countryside. By contrast, the city of Manchester occupies 11,000 hectares.
Kate Gordon, the CPRE's planning officer, said: "Developers' preference for building on greenfield sites, assisted by local authorities' continued willingness to allocate such sites, is squandering scarce land. The result will be continuing unnecessary loss of countryside to urban sprawl and less investment in urban renewal."
The CPRE wants the national target for new housing using brownfield sites to be raised from 60 per cent to at least 75 per cent, and the 30 homes-per-hectare density directive to be extended to the whole of the country.