THE DEBATE over house building and the countryside will become louder today when plans for a vast increase in the number of homes to be built in the South-east are likely to be overwhelmingly rejected by representatives of 138 councils.
Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors from the South-east are expected to give an all-party thumbs down to calls from planning inspectors to let building rip in the most overcrowded corner of England to support the region's economic growth.
However, John Prescott, the Secretary of State for the Environment, who promised two years ago to "green" the planning system, can ignore the protests if he chooses, and let development explode across the green fields of south-east counties when he makes a final decision at the end of the year.
It may be the most fateful decision ever taken about the English landscape.
The controversial proposal to step up the building rate came last month from an expert panel - of just two people - appointed by Mr Prescott to advise him on how many new homes the South-east will need between 1996 and 2016.
The two planners, retired chief planning inspector Stephen Crow and senior planning inspector Rosamund Whittaker, tore up the carefully agreed strategy of the South-east's own consortium of planning authorities, Serplan, which believes that if landscape and quality of life are to be preserved, a total of no more than 666,000 houses should be constructed in the period.
Instead, the pair recommended that 1.1 million homes should be built - an increase of 430,000, or 64 per cent, over Serplan's suggested maximum - with a big drop in the number planned to be built on brownfield sites in towns and cities.
An analysis of their proposals, published today by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, says they threaten 430 square kilometres of countryside - an area greater than the Isle of Wight - and that the number of houses they are recommending would line both sides of a road stretching from London to Hawaii (7,200 miles).
The proposal horrified environmentalists, already concerned at the amount of countryside due to be bulldozed under Serplan's present strategy. The Council for the Protection of Rural England called it "a nightmare future of sprawling development, traffic congestion and urban decay" - although house builders were delighted, anticipating an unparalleled boom.
But most angered of all were Serplan's members, who feel that the report is not only way out of line with the Government's own policy on sustainable development, and likely to widen further the north-south divide, but makes a nonsense of their own functions as elected representatives.
Serplan's 75 members, local councillors representing 18 million people, give their formal response today, and it is certain to be extremely hostile, as their key policy-making body has already unanimously rejected the Crow/Whittaker report.
Serplan's Members Policy Group has produced a detailed rebuttal, citing its "flaws and inconsistencies," and the group's chairman, Councillor John Ballance of Brighton, is calling on Mr Prescott to reject it completely. The report "implies massive greenfield development", he says, which would itself "remove the pressure on the development industry to seek out potential urban opportunities - and thereby undermine the achievement of an urban renaissance".
The report "sets aside the democratically arrived-at objectives for the region which Serplan has put forward, and substitutes its own," he says.
The recommendations of Professor Crow and Ms Whittaker, after a five- week public inquiry in the summer, certainly came as a great shock to most Serplan members, and to many other observers.
David Davis, chairman of Surrey County Council's environment committee, called their report "sheer madness," adding: "It would mean an effective goodbye to most of our Green Belt." Under the proposals, Surrey would double its planned new house building, from the agreed figure of 35,000 homes, to 77,000 homes. Bill Chapman, the chairman of Buckinghamshire County Council, which faces a 43 per cent increase from 64,000 houses to 92,000 houses, said the plan "beggars belief".
Professor Crow and Ms Whittaker justified their recommendations by saying that the South-east's role as "the engine of growth of the national economy" must be recognised.
They contemptuously dismissed Serplan's approach as having "a complete lack of responsibility" and were scornful of its attempts to follow the Government's much-publicised guidelines on sustainable development - the philosophy of growing without destroying the future by balancing growth with environmental protection.
"The term `sustainable development' is fashionable and used by practitioners and laymen alike to mean what they think it should mean, more often than not as a device for saying `No'," they said.
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