Plan to 'blitz' east of England with 500,000 homes backed

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Proposals to build nearly 500,000 homes in eastern England were formally approved yesterday despite claims they would harm historic towns and threaten the environment.

Proposals to build nearly 500,000 homes in eastern England were formally approved yesterday despite claims they would harm historic towns and threaten the environment.

Members of the East of England Regional Assembly approved the outline proposals to build 478,000 homes in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk over the next 17 years.

But the plans were heavily criticised by local authorities, and condemned by the Conservatives as "a blitz of England's countryside". Under the scheme, 23,900 homesa year would be constructed in the region. The bulk are earmarked for Essex, but tens of thousands are also due to be built in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, sparking anger among residents and fears of environmental damage.

Yesterday, however, members of the regional assembly's planning panel rejected Government demands to increase the building programme by a further 18,000 homes along the corridor between Stansted and Peterborough. They also called upon the Government to fund infrastructure associated with the homebuilding boom.

The homes are part of the plans by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, to develop a swath of the South-east, stretching from eastern England across to the Thames Gateway. Mr Prescott hopes to provide thousands of low-cost homes for key workers and help cutregional house prices.

But an independent report into the proposals, released earlier this week, warned the planned number of new homes would have serious consequences for water resources, air quality and road congestion.

Yesterday's planning decision will now have to be ratified by the full East of England Regional Assembly before being considered by an independent planning inquiry. A final decision is expected by 2006.

John Hayes, the Conservative housing and planning spokesman, said: "This amounts to a blitz on Britain's countryside with the devastating environmental impact, and the concerns of local people being swept to one side by a distant, unelected regional body. The regional assembly is actually little more than stooge for Mr Prescott. In today's centralised planning system, it is he who decides how many houses are built over our precious Green Belt."

Derrick Ashley, executive member of the environment on Hertfordshire County Council, said: "All the people of Hertfordshire can see is a whole lot of aggravation in terms of massive amounts of housing. We need housing and we need affordable housing, but this doesn't have the back-up of investment in infrastructure."

Essex County Council also condemned the plans as a "think-of-a-number, government-driven policy, with little consideration for environmental, social or economic factors".

John Reynolds, chairman of the regional planning panel, said: "We listened carefully to the views of local authorities and other stakeholders. We are now recommending the Assembly sets out an ambitious challenge to make the East of England a better place to live and work."

Lord Rooker, the minister for Regeneration, insisted the Government was not concreting over the South-east. He said: "All the planning applications for any of these developments will be taken by the normal district council planning authorities, not taken by central government in Westminster.

"You need the big picture in order to see what the overall strategy is. That's the only way you can plan for things such as water, rail, roads, infrastructure, the health service.

"The actual details of which site, brownfield or greenfield - and it will be mainly brownfield - gets built on will be taken by district planning authorities, not by central government departments."