Preserving the countryside is a natural Labour issue

Prescott's big chance

Share
Related Topics
As a government minister, Nicholas Ridley was such a dedicated non-interventionist that he once teased his civil servants by suggesting that traffic lights should be abolished. Not surprisingly, therefore, he was of all modern Environment Secretaries the most contemptuous of measures to restrict housing development in the the South East of England. Ridley's laissez faire approach to planning was, broadly, that if a developer wanted to build houses where people wanted to live that was OK by him. And if it spoilt the view of residents who were already there, well they could always move elsewhere. But the Ridley tendency in the Tory party - never dominant since it had the consequence of upsetting a lot of Conservative voters - is now dormant. Instead the tables are turned. It is John Prescott who stands accused of latter day Ridleyism, and the Conservative Party who are doing the accusing. The Deputy Prime Minister arrives at the Commons for today's debate on the green belt on the defensive.

The strenuous efforts made at the weekend by ministers, including Mr Prescott, to reassure their critics that they are not intending, as William Hague now accuses them, of concreting over England's green and pleasant acres suggests they are waking up to the electoral dangers. An idea for imposing VAT on greenfield development is floated here. An audit of empty "brownfield" sites to ensure that they are used for new housing wherever possible is hinted there.

But actions are more clamorous than words. And by declining to halt two big greenfield developments, one locating 10,000 homes in green belt at Stevenage and one on the outskirts of Newcastle, while imposing a larger housing quota on West Sussex than the county itself wanted, Mr Prescott has made quite a lot of people anxious. Not least those Labour MPs representing hitherto Tory rural seats who believe a relaxation of the green belt might be just the topic to ensure their defeat at the next general election.

But this is about more than electoral politics in the rural heartlands. The first question is whether we need anything like as many houses as the departmental planners, justifying the raid on greenfield sites, say we do. In 1995 the projections prepared for the then government were that 4.4 million "new households" would be formed by 2016 and all would need to be found homes. But many of the assumptions underlying that expansionist prediction were distinctly flaky: the level of immigration from Europe and of population movement within the country was probably overestimated. The numbers of people co-habiting, rather than living alone, after a divorce, was almost certainly underestimated. Nor - understandably - did the projections take account of the likelihood that the Dearing reforms to higher education funding will result in many more students will continue to live at home with their parents. And so on.

But the more interesting question is whether protection of countryside from housing development is not every bit as naturally a left-of-centre cause as a right-of-centre one. True, most of the noise being made about invasion of the green belt has so far been made by Tory politicians (and commentators) and by the Labour MPs with most geographical reason to be frightened of them. What's more, there has been a certain tribalist but understandable relish with which two of Mr Prescott's ministers - Richard Caborn and Nick Raynsford - have predicted that half of all new homes will have to be built on greenfield sites. Certainly, if you're a city dweller, Nimbyism is often irritating at best and mean spirited at worst. Many of those who oppose further housing development in the country also oppose factories being built to provide work to keep young people in the rural areas where they were born. Why shouldn't the pleasures of living in the countryside be shared? Isn't this just a caucus of the countryside pro-hunting, parochial, and Tory voting, to be faced down if possible and only appeased if absolutely necessary?

No, and for several reasons. The first, as John Prescott himself acknowledged bluntly yesterday, is simply that "if we all decamp to the country we will find ourselves dependent on our cars, with the countryside gone and the environment ruined". But a second is the social need to locate more homes - including the executive homes that tend to be such a feature of shiny new greenfield developments - in cities and towns. And here there is a distinctively Labour goal to be fulfiled. Few experts on what is now fashionably called social exclusion believe that you can start to rescue cut-off, sink estates without generating more of a social mix in their neighbourhoods.

It's right, as Prescott also suggested yesterday, that it would be easier to attract aspiring, upwardly mobile people back to the city if schools, hospitals and public transport were better. But the reverse is also almost certainly true. That the presence of articulate, demanding families in revived urban areas would help to make those services better. Schools in danger of failure need investment in buildings and teachers and the drive on standards that the Government has promised. They also need more parents who are not prepared to put up with second best. There is a powerful case for the Government to apply (as it has already promised to go on doing in the case of out of town shopping centres) a "sequential test" - it will only build outside cities and towns if there is no alternative site inside them. Given the growing doubts about housing needs over the next 20 years, that could mean a big switch away from rural development.

My guess is that Prescott understands this. As it happens the spectacle of William Hague leading the defence of the green belt is not without what Marxists used to call contradictions. The champions of unfettered market forces rush unhesitatingly to the defence of one of the most sweeping interventions in the market place undertaken by the post-war Labour government. By contrast Prescott now has the chance - and probably the inclination - both to protect the countryside and regenerate the cities. It could yet make him one of the great environment ministers. But he will need support from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to start telling the developers - literally - where to go.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Andy Coulson  

Andy Coulson: With former News of the World editor cleared of perjury charges, what will he do next?

James Cusick James Cusick
Jack Warner  

Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Tom Peck
Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?