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Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
Homes in the country?
How safe is my valley? Are greenbelts threatened?

John Prescott is planning to tackle the acute housing shortage in the south-east. But could that mean a new threat to the green and pleasant land?
The English countryside - rolling hills, waving fields and village fetes.

Or an open wasteland ripe for housing development?

Environmental campaigners and developers are holding their breath to see what Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott thinks of this green and pleasant land.

The reforms to the country's planning system he is due to announce on Thursday will determine who, how and where the population is located in the years to come.

We just need a planning system that allows sufficient homes to be built.

Pierre Williams, House Builders' Federation
Housing developers and some rural business organisations would like to see a relaxation of the planning laws in the countryside.

Others think the green-belt is sacrosanct and should be preserved for our own, and Nature's sake.

Chancellor Gordon Brown's recent comments in his statement on spending suggested the government was committed to encouraging urban renaissance and protecting green-belts.

But some believe concrete will have to come to the countryside.

Targets hit

The spokesman for the House Builders' Federation, Pierre Williams said it was simply a case of numbers.

"We need more homes as there is a massive strain on supply and demand and that is what is pushing house prices up," he said.

Villages need 'organic growth'
The government's scheme for urban regeneration aimed to increase housing on brownfield - or unused urban - sites by 60% by 2008.

But Mr Williams says that targets have already been reached.

"There are plenty of areas in need of housing that don't have brownfield sites available.

"Therefore there is some need for greenfield sites.

"Because if we carry on as we are, house prices will continue to increase and teachers, nurses and police officers won't be able to afford to stay in their jobs."

Organic growth

Mr Williams said urban expansion takes up 0.05% of land area a year or 1% every 20 years.

"You can judge for yourself if we're concreting over the countryside as people say," he added.

Communities can benefit from new housing developments in terms of planning gain - the inclusion of a "shopping list" of everything from doctor's surgeries to nursery schools.

People, wherever they live, but particularly in urban areas need green spaces to maintain their physical and mental health

Campaigner John Beasley
The senior planning adviser for the Country Land and Business Association, Mark Jones, believes rural communities need more flexible planning laws.

"We think some villages can take an organic growth of a few houses - it keeps the village alive," he said.

The demand for rural properties means wealthier, city people - used to driving to supermarkets and schools are taking over many communities.

But that means old, rural family run businesses cannot compete and often close down.

"They start to stagnate, services start to go and you end up with dormitory villages," said Mr Jones.

Rural idylls

Campaigner John Beasley, of the Opposition to Destruction of Open Green Spaces, believes the countryside must not be sacrificed for development.

"Although more housing is needed it is vital to protect our green spaces, otherwise bit by bit they will go," he said.

Swindon's Front Garden Action Group is fighting plans for 3,800 houses on the town's green-belt - home to munjack deer, crested newts and diverse hedgerow wildlife.

Spokesman Trevor King said the government's focus on regeneration of brownfield and infill areas was welcome.

"We all need to retire to open spaces where we can enjoy something natural or not manmade," he said.

Democracy threatened

There is speculation that Mr Prescott will announce 200,000 new affordable homes in the south-east.

Projects in Ashford, Milton Keynes, Stansted and the Thames Gateway are apparently being considered.

While some of the areas have regeneration projects or brownfield sites to cope, there are some concerns.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England's head of policy for planning, Henry Oliver, said: "Major new growth at Stansted would have an impact in rural villages and could fuel expected proposals for the airport's expansion."

But a key area of concern for the CPRE is that the government appears intent on introducing regional planning bodies.

"We would be very worried if the government said it was interested in planning but was going to take away the strategic planning process of democratically elected council councils," said Mr Oliver.

"It would freeze communities out of decisions and could undermine public confidence."

See also:

16 Jul 02 | Business
09 Apr 02 | England
05 Jul 02 | Politics
01 Jul 02 | Business
01 Jul 02 | Business
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