Rural areas 'threatened by plans for housing'

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MORE THAN 100 square miles of countryside in the crowded south-east of England could disappear under asphalt and bricks in the next 15 years, if the Government insists on the need for 855,000 new houses to be built in the region between 1991 and 2006.

Last month, Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, proposed ordering local council planners in the South-east to free sufficient land for building that number of houses. Yesterday the Council for the Protection of Rural England demanded that he think again.

House-building is in the doldrums thanks to the recession. But the CPRE predicts that planning battles over estates sprawling across open countryside could erupt in a few years, as happened through much of the last decade.

More than half of farmland lost to urban development goes to house-building and the Government predicts that between 1981 and 2001 about 34,000 hectares (84,000 acres), almost the size of the Isle of Wight, will be built on.

Mr Howard proposes that house-building should continue at 57,000 homes a year - the same rate as during the late 1980s. Underpinning his proposals are government estimates for continuing strong growth in the number of new households because of gradual population increases and changes in family structure. Households are becoming smaller: more adults live and raise children alone and there are more single widowed people.

The CPRE points out that 80 per cent of the projected increase in South-east households comes from more people living alone. Yet 51 per cent of new private sector homes in the 1980s had three or more bedrooms. It argues that the 855,000 new homes figure be drastically reduced, and that the focus should be on smaller terraced houses and low-rise flats, and conversions of existing houses into flats and maisonettes.

Councils and central government should also give priority to building on derelict land inside cities, bringing thousands of empty, unfit homes back into use and converting vacant speculative office blocks into flats. London has more than 1,100 hectares (2,718 acres) of urban dereliction and this has grown threefold since 1974. It would be room enough for 30,000 homes.

Building in cities need not involve new high-rise flats or the loss of urban greenery, the CPRE says. 'It enables much better use to be made of public transport, reduces the demand for travel by private car and saves energy - low-rise flats are up to three times more energy efficient than detached houses.'

The large house-building companies say that clamping down on countryside development will push up house prices once the recession is over.

But the CPRE says that record levels of private house-building in the 1980s coincided with record increases in homelessness and severe shortages of low-cost homes. Its solution is for the Government to provide a separate figure for the number of 'affordable homes' needed in the South-east, and insist that developers work towards this target by including a quota of low-cost properties in every new scheme.

The CPRE identifies 10 countryside areas in danger of being built on if the Government were to insist on 855,000 new homes. Its 'housing hot spots' are around Carterton, Oxfordshire; north- west of Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire; the corridor between Bedford and Biddenham, north of Stevenage, Hertfordshire; Chelmsford in Essex; south of Reading in Berkshire; Micheldever in Hampshire; between Brighton and its by-pass; east of Horley, Surrey; and in the Medway valley north of Maidstone, Kent.

Yesterday, the Department of the Environment said that the 855,000 figure was not 'set in concrete'.