As the obliteration of the countryside by new housing continues, Duff Hart-Davis attacks a scheme in the Cotswolds
It was Lord Byron who attracted the celebrated denunciation "mad, bad and dangerous to know". But from the way people in our neck of the woods are talking, you would think that Lady Caroline Lamb's stinging epithets now apply exclusively to the planning committee of Stroud District Council.

It is true that the planners are faced with a hideous task. The Department of the Environment has decreed that Gloucestershire must find space for 53,000 new houses by 2011, and the struggle to accommodate them all is a nightmare, because almost every community in the county is fighting with feline ferocity to ward off development.

Nevertheless, the planning committee's latest major proposal is surely its most provocative yet: to create a settlement of 1,400 new dwellings, and a 25-acre industrial site, on farmland at the southern end of the glorious Painswick Valley.

To the planners, the key attraction of the site is its proximity to Stroud, the main provider of jobs and facilities in the area. Only those who know the ground can appreciate what a disaster the scheme would be in terms of conservation. From a narrow point at its lower end, the valley opens out northwards into a shallow V, with fields rising gently on either hand. Most of the threatened land lies on the eastern side, but 400 houses are proposed for the fields round Callowell Farm, on the western side.

In the view of locals, the site is totally unsuitable for mass development, first because it is within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and second because it is in the middle of the Cotswold Environmentally Sensitive Area. Almost all the scattered stone buildings date from the 18th century or earlier, and the land has been farmed kindly, so that the meadows are full of wildflowers, with old-fashioned varieties such as yellow rattle and black medick much in evidence. Small comfort might be taken from the Council for the Preservation of Rural England's concern, expressed this week, about planners encroaching on the countryside.

But it seems that for the plannners the appeal of Painwick is too much to resist. And when the scheme came to light, the locals rose in wrath. A leak from the Stroud District Council revealed that the settlement would be announced at a meeting of the planning committee, and more than 200 interested parties crowded into the hall. Tempers, already flaring, were further inflamed by some of the answers given by the Chief Planning Officer, David Buckle.

When asked why the settlement could not be built on the disused airfield at Aston Down, near Minchinhampton, he replied that he would prefer to fight the people of Painswick, rather than those of Minchinhampton. (Can it be that they are posher and have more clout?) When somebody objected that the Painswick valley is in an AONB, and that if 1,000 houses were built in it, nowhere would be safe, he replied "we already can build where we like".

That one outrageous remark perfectly illustrates the futility of present planning controls. Never mind that AONBs are theoretically as sacrosanct as National Parks. Recent experience has repeatedly shown that planners can ignore conservation guidelines with total impunity.

The people who would suffer most if the new scheme went ahead are the inhabitants of Pitchcombe, a village perched on the western flank of the valley. They would look across not at a patchwork of fields and woods, but at a solid mass of houses. Goaded by that prospect, they held an emergency meeting in the village hall and immediately raised pounds 850 in cash to form a fighting fund. Now they and various other protest organisations have amalgamated into the Painswick Valley Group.

Protesters are fervently hoping that John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, meant what he said when he promised recently that his administration intends to put the environment "at the heart of Government". The new Labour MP for Stroud, David Drew, seems to have no such notion - last week he told the Stroud News and Journal: "If the people of Painswick and Callowell think they can get me to put it [the settlement] elsewhere, they can forget it."

But Mr Drew is at least proposing to challenge the Department of the Environment on the overall total of new houses needed. Before he went down in flames, the Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, admitted that the national figure he gave of 4.4 million was misconceived: what he meant, he said, was that number of households, rather than separate dwellings.

Privately commissioned research has shown that the realistic figure for Gloucestershire may be closer to 41,000 than 53,000, and Stroud has has been campaigning vigorously to have its own allocation reduced. But even the lower figure is a terrifying number. In the words of Mike Sell, the council's Principal Local Plans Officer, "our problem in providing houses is very great. Obviously we're aware that the issue is highly controversial, but there are no easy sites, and no easy solutions".

The next step will come on Thursday, when the planners formally ask the Council for permission to go out to public consultation. The debate is scheduled to last all summer - and its acrimonious nature will reflect the acute discomfort by which innumerable rural communities are gripped as they struggle to face the future.