Preserving the countryside is a natural Labour issue

Prescott's big chance

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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.

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