by Nic Rigby
BBC News Online
Green fields and public opinion could be "bulldozed" by a new quango spearheading the vast expansion of Milton Keynes, rural campaigners fear.
Artist's impression of development plans for part of Milton Keynes
English Partnerships and Milton Keynes Council have put forward plans for a so-called Partnerships Committee - to co-ordinate plans for 70,000 new homes in the town over the next 20 years.
Environmental campaigners are concerned about the power the committee will have and its lack of democratic accountability.
But an English Partnerships' spokeswoman said the fears were not justified and that environmental issues were at the top of its agenda.
The committee, which aims to start work at the end of April 2004, is in charge of plans which could see Milton Keynes become bigger than Nottingham and nearly as large as Liverpool.
The town's population is likely to rise from 210,000 to nearly 400,000.
The proposals could also see major expansion in Upton, Northampton.
On Wednesday, Henry Oliver, head of planning for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), spoke of his concerns about the area around Milton Keynes designated for expansion and about the committee itself.
Areas earmarked for development include greenfield land to the west of the town near the village of Calverton and land to the east near Wavendon and Woburn Sands.
Mr Oliver said he was concerned that some of the land singled out by the committee had not been earmarked for development in the region's local plan.
"The amount of greenfield land is worrying," he said.
He said the committee, which is made up of appointees by the government and councils, should not pre-empt local democratic planning decisions.
Mr Oliver said the wide-ranging powers of the committee were also a cause for concern.
The committee could undertake compulsory purchase (as can local authorities), buy sites, invest in roads and undertake promotional activities.
"There is a danger this committee could be bulldozing through the countryside and public opinion," he said.
Andrew Lockley, planning spokesman for Friends of the Earth in Milton Keynes, said he feared the committee would not contain a "sufficient range of experts on the environment".
He also thought the committee would push through the development of greenfield land on the outskirts of the town instead of brownfield or urban land in the centre of Milton Keynes.
"These greenfield sites could account for most of the growth needed. These are not the right places to develop," he told BBC News Online.
Alice Crampin, chairwoman of CPRE Bedfordshire, criticised the committee's lack of democratic accountability.
"It seems that the normal planning process is collapsing in this top-down initiative," she said.
A spokeswoman for English Partnerships said the committee would not "bulldoze" through plans and public consultation was taking place on the plans.
"It is very much the ethos of English Partnerships to work in partnership and environmental issues are on the top of our agenda and thought," she said.
She said the committee would not have power to over-rule regional local plans.
It will also include independent members, who will apply for the posts, although the final decision on appointments would be the government's, she said.
About 1,800 hectares is expected to be needed for the main area of development for the expansion of Milton Keynes.
One of the last major urban expansions in the UK took place at the end of the 1940s with the development of 30 new towns.