Building on Green Belt rises by 60pc

Labour has presided over a 60 per cent increase in house building on Green Belt land, new figures showed yesterday. The disclosure provoked fresh criticism of John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, for concreting over much of rural England.

The figures, from Mr Prescott's department, showed that the average number of houses built on Green Belt land rose from 3,287 during 1994 to 1996 - the last three full years of the Major government - to 5,265 between 1998 and 2003 under Labour.

A Builder

The South-East and the North-West experienced the sharpest rises in building on what was supposed to be land protected from large-scale development.

In the South-East, the scene of the biggest house building programmes under Labour, the number of new dwellings in the Green Belt rose from 553 in 1996 to 802 in 1998 and 1,175 in 2000.

North-West numbers rose from 730 in 1996 to 1,049 in 1998 and 1,565 in 2003.

The Tories seized on the revelations as evidence of the way Mr Prescott and the Government had disregarded rural England.

Caroline Spelman, the Conservative local government spokesman, said last night: "Under John Prescott's watch, Green Belt protection has become worthless.

"The Green Belt has served England well for half a century but this is decreasingly the case.

"The new figures confirm that it faces a sustained assault from Mr Prescott's army of bulldozers and concrete mixers."

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrats' environment spokesman, accused the Government of manipulating the Green Belt by eroding areas on the fringes of urban areas but redesignating land farther out that was never likely to be built on.

"They are designating land as Green Belt land simply to fiddle the figures," he said.

Mr Baker recalled the famous slip of the tongue attributed to the Deputy Prime Minister, saying: "John Prescott once said, 'The Green Belt is a Labour policy and we intend to build on it'.

"These figures show Labour's disregard for the environment," he said.

Legislation allowing for the control of urban sprawl was passed under Clement Attlee's Labour government in 1947, although the Tories said that they implemented the protective regime in 1955. Since then, large tracts of the country have in theory been protected against urban sprawl and over-development.

Building has never been banned on the Green Belt but councils have to take account of the restrictions when considering planning applications. New rules strengthening Green Belt protection are due to come into effect in the New Year.

Mr Prescott, whose department oversees the planning and development rules, has faced severe criticism both on his stewardship of rural England and his controversial regeneration plans for housing in urban areas in the Midlands and North.

In November, the urban task force he set up condemned his planned wholesale demolition of Victorian and Edwardian terraces in cities such as Liverpool as "clumsy, insensitive, rushed, and wasteful".

Four months earlier the Campaign to Protect Rural England attacked his proposed changes to the planning system, requiring councils to release more land for housing in high-price areas, as heralding "a free-for-all" in the countryside.

The figures on Green Belt house building were given in answer to a parliamentary question tabled by Mrs Spelman.

Aware that some Green Belt designations had changed since Labour came to power, she specifically asked for the number of dwellings "built within the 1997 designated Green Belt in each year since 1997".

The answer, from Yvette Cooper, a minister at Mr Prescott's office, showed that during the last three full years of Tory rule between 3,055 and 3,552 homes a year were built on Green Belt land.

Tony Blair's arrival in Downing Street in 1997 coincided with a rise in Green Belt house building to 4,456 that year, 4,910 the following year and 5,691 in 2001.

The provisional figure for 2003, the most recent available, showed that 5,521 homes were built on what in 1997 would have been designated Green Belt land.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister dismissed the criticisms, saying that Labour had increased the average housing density from 25 to 40 dwellings per hectare (2.74 acres), "making the same amount of land go further".

A spokesman said that, although it had been necessary to build more new homes, "it is a myth that the Green Belt has been eroded since 1997".

Although she said it was councils, not the Government, that made individual Green Belt designations, an extra 19,000 hectares (46,930 acres) had been brought into protected status between 1997 and 2003.

A further 12,000 hectares (29,640 acres) was expected to be added to that., 28th Dec, 2005

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