The case for building more houses

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The Independent Online

Opposition to John Prescott's plan to build some 500,000 new homes in the South-east of England is growing. His proposals were given the support of the East of England Regional Assembly planning committee yesterday, but they still have to come before the full assembly next month. After that, they will have to negotiate a lengthy public consultation process. As more people realise their back yards have been earmarked for development, the cries of opposition will, no doubt, grow louder.

Opposition to John Prescott's plan to build some 500,000 new homes in the South-east of England is growing. His proposals were given the support of the East of England Regional Assembly planning committee yesterday, but they still have to come before the full assembly next month. After that, they will have to negotiate a lengthy public consultation process. As more people realise their back yards have been earmarked for development, the cries of opposition will, no doubt, grow louder.

People are understandably sceptical about the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals. Many are worried about the planned encroachment onto parts of the green belt. An independent report has argued that the Government's plans will increase the risk of flooding and threaten wildlife. Then there is the question of local infrastructure. Locals claim that the transport links of the areas Mr Prescott is proposing for development - Ashford in Kent, Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, the Thames Gateway, and the Cambridge-Stansted corridor - are already stretched. They argue that if the Government incorporates these areas into a broad London commuter belt without building more road and rail capacity, the result will be chaos.

There are more fundamental objections, too. Critics have pointed out that thousands of houses in northern towns stand empty. Surely it would be more appropriate to encourage people to move there, rather than building in the South and exacerbating the country's North-South economic divide? Mr Prescott wants to provide homes in the South-east for low-paid public sector workers who are being forced out of the London market by high house prices. But would it not be more sensible for the state to help public sector workers, not by subsidising their housing, but by paying them more?

These are reasonable objections. But there is also a case for supporting Mr Prescott's proposals. The number of new houses being built in Britain has slipped to its lowest level since the 1920s. While not solely responsible for our inflated housing market, this shortage of supply has been a factor. Since the South-east is under great strain, it makes sense for the Government to ease building restrictions slightly. While green belt land is to be cherished, it is not all of equal value. There is a case for allotting some green land for limited development. The decision to build is not one to be taken lightly, but it is not something the Government should shirk if the case is strong enough.

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