On saving the greenbelt: John Prescott, saviour of rural England? Don't laugh

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The Independent Online
ARE YOU shocked by this week's news that huge numbers of houses are to be built on the south-east's precious green countryside? You shouldn't be. Despite John Prescott's recent change of policy on housing and urban developments, we are still trapped in an economic system that favours development on fresh greenfield sites rather than restoring our cities. Until this policy changes, too, both town and country will continue to suffer.

We can get much more housing into our urban areas that we have done for the past few decades. Mr Prescott has set an initial target of at least 60 per cent of all new homes to go there - better than the 50 per cent we have been managing, but not as good as the three-quarters some think is feasible.

Is it? Yes: and we can rebuild decent housing in our towns and cities without returning to the horrors of tower blocks, or wiping out precious urban open spaces. We can do it by cleaning up abandoned urban land and restoring run-down buildings. But - and here comes the catch - none of this will be possible without a whole new approach to policy, investment and the economics which drive change.

Developers and many of their customers still much prefer greenfield sites. The land is clean and uncluttered by rubble or obsolete buildings. You can get plant and materials there easily. And the final product has all the advantages of shiny newness. Every week, according to new evidence, 1,700 more people leave cities and towns for the country, than go in the other direction.

Many of them are simply searching for a better life, in a cleaner, nicer area. Businesses are engaged in the same trek from the inner cities to their fringes. Not only are these allowed by local authorities, they are marked as the "in" places to work. We are all living even more car-dependent lifestyles, commuting further between home, work and school, leisure and shopping venues.

But politicians are noticing. When John Prescott to returned from Kyoto, where he helped negotiate the first-ever cut in CO2 emissions by the western world, the irony of what was happening at home seems to have struck him. He saw that we were locked into a "predict and provide" approach: first predict household growth and then provide land for houses to meet those projects, without really questioning the numbers.

In no other area of public policy are we doing the same. Of course, if you build new houses in attractive places they will be occupied in preference to those in run-down areas. Yet, we plan for the future as if it has to be just like the past - even to the extent of assuming that tens of thousands of people will (and should) continue to leave urban areas every decade. Remorselessly, that leads to the destruction of much of the last of green England.

So, his new policy, of abandoning the "predict and provide" approach and setting a target for more new housing is a significant improvement. But it is not enough. The key economic signals have not changed.

For example, we pay VAT on refurbishment and repair but not on new housing. That means that it is still more expensive to reclaim and to restore previously developed land than to develop a greenfield site. The prestige associated with out-of-town development persists - local authorities and property developers still market pristine business parks covered with shiny tin sheds on the bypass in preference to urban locations. And people are still leaving urban areas - taking with them entrepreneurial skills, innovation and enthusiasm, and leaving behind those who have neither the choice about where they live nor the resources to improve their own environment.

There is so much that has to change - and fast, if we are not to compound the ills of the past. Towns and cities are the heart of modern society and the places, still, where nearly 80 per cent of us live. Yet, too many people live there as if on sufferance.

I am not saying that, therefore, we should be forcing all new building onto empty urban sites. In some places this does need to happen - there are sites, long vacated by heavy industry that could provide homes and other facilities for many thousands of people. But we should imagine the remaking of our cities as a continuous process - a bedraggled Victorian terrace being restored for housing and local shops, a factory site turning into a community centre with small workshops, an old school becoming a workplace for an IT company, a church being used for a children's nursery and arts centre, offices built for a market which never arrived being converted into flats for the elderly, new houses and business units being constructed on wasteland.

This is, perhaps, the most sustainable industry it is possible to imagine - it will go on forever, and we need it to: continually reviving and restoring what is useful from the past but also providing for new communities and the infrastructure they need. This is the mission Lord Rogers's task force, set up by John Prescott, needs to lead: not just totting up an inventory of empty sites, but championing the cause of regeneration. With the passing of the "smokestack" industries, we do not need to separate homes and workspaces. We can plan anew for communities with a high range and quality of services within walking distance.

So, Prescott's vision of an "urban renaissance" is absolutely right and necessary. We really have no choice but to provide towns and cities where people can live rich, rewarding lives in ways that are not dependent on long car journeys, the consumption of huge amounts of natural resources (including land) and which maximise the benefits that can be provided through mass provision of public transport, the arts, leisure services and other facilities.

If it seems like reinventing the wheel, then that is an urgently needed task. Restoring city life is one way of avoiding the emerging gulf between town and country. The needs of town and country remain different, and should be celebrated as such. The urban renaissance offers the chance to meet them without imposing uniformity or standardised solutions.

But this is the beginning of an historic argument, not a finished deal. Mr Prescott needs to convince his colleagues to provide the economic framework and services which will help the urban renaissance to take real and enduring shape. Only then will the endless turf wars between shrinking green Britain and remorseless suburban sprawl end. Can Labour deliver?

Fiona Reynolds runs the Council for the Protection of Rural England.