Land News

Alarm at Prescott plan for 'endless suburbia'

Daily Express, 25th January, 2005

TWO plans to build hundreds of thousands of new homes which could see vast swathes of rural England vanish under endless suburbia will be announced today.

John Prescott will unveil a five-year plan for new housing. At the same time, a 20-year proposal to build 640,000 homes will be launched by the Southeast Regional Assembly, an unelected quango set up by the Deputy Prime Minister. Up to 250,000 of the homes could be built on greenfield sites.

Critics fears that such a massive house-building programme will place an intolerable burden on a road and rail system that is already gripped by congestion and delays.

They say the problem is that the assembly plans to concentrate growth within nine areas identified by the Government, including Milton Keynes, Ashford in Kent, the Thames Gateway and the Portsmouth-Southampton conurbation.

While every household in the region will be asked for views on the 250-page plan, the final decision will have to be approved by Mr Prescott and he has repeatedly demanded a big increase in housebuilding.

The Deputy Prime Minister is expected to throw his weight behind the most contentious option, which calls for an extra 32,000 homes every year from 2006.

This would produce a total of 640,000 new homes by 2026, 80,000 more than currently planned. The second option would be to stick with the current plans to build 28,000 new houses, roughly the amount constructed in the region last year. The final option involves 25,500 new homes a year, which is the average number of houses which have been built in the South-east over the last five years.

The proposals were greeted with alarm last night by the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Regional director Edward Dawson said: "This will have a significant and widespread impact on the environment." The Conservatives said that voters would be horrified by the scale of the proposed housebuilding. Regions spokesman Bernard Jenkin said:

"Councils have lost control of their key role in planning to the distant and unaccountable regional assemblies.

John Prescott's concreting over of our green fields is not in the interests of local people and will mean the wrong homes being built in the wrong places.

Local councillors who are accountable to the local people should be taking these decisions." But Adam Sampson, director of housing charity Shelter, said: "Britain's housing crisis is biting hard in the South-east.

"Those who argue that we should reduce the level of housing growth need to recognise the scale of the crisis in affordability and supply.

"Only a dramatic increase in the number of new social homes will help those South-east families in desperate housing need.

"All new housing must be sustainable and designed to minimise environmental impact, focusing on high-density projects in urban areas or on brown field land.

"But build we must imaginatively, sensitively, sustainably. The question is not whether we build these new homes, but when, where and how quickly." Meanwhile, the controversial centrepiece of Mr Prescott's five-year plan is likely to be a new right-to-buy scheme for 700,000 housing association tenants.

Another idea aimed at solving the first-time buyer crisis could be the building of 60,000 starter homes on cheap land which is owned by the Government.

Buyers priced out of the market would own the bricks and mortar but the freehold would be held by the Government. Mr Prescott believes such homes could be built and sold for about 60,000.

The Deputy Prime Minister will also pledge nationwide action on the problem of abandoned homes. Nine pilot projects to knock down unwanted homes in areas of low housing demand are to be extended across the whole country.

Middle-class home owners will be promised a cut in the planning red tape surrounding improvements such as extensions and conversions.

Labour's election chief, Alan Milburn, has championed the extension of the right-to-buy scheme in the face of reported opposition from Mr Prescott and Gordon Brown.

But the Treasury has now agreed to allow housing associations to borrow "off the balance sheet" to fund the cost of building replacement homes.

The Treasury decision will be seen as a significant victory for Mr Milburn, who wants Labour's election campaign to target "aspirational" voters.

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