Houses 'must be built on greenbelt'

The government must consider building on the greenbelt if it is to meet its house building targets, a think-tank claims.

Despite government optimism, the Social Market Foundation (SMF) warns existing brownbelt land will not support the planned three million new homes.

Instead the government must be prepared to relax restrictions on the greenbuilt. If houses are built to a realistic density, at least two million must be built on previously undeveloped land, the SMF calculates.

The report states: "It will not be possible, even if those living in towns and cities accept the loss of their gardens and parks, to meet the UK's housing needs through previously-developed land alone."

SMF supports Gordon Brown's house building drive, which it argues is necessary to correct deep unbalances in the housing market.

But it warns the planned three million homes will be the minimum required, further increasing the need for the government to consider all available building sites.

Pre-empting the deeply-felt defence of the greenbelt by opposition politicians and residents' groups, the SMF argues many people misunderstand how "green" the greenbelt is.

Greenbelts were originally imposed to prevent urban sprawl but are often used as a byword for unblemished countryside. The SMF said the greenbelt frequently protects "neither wildlife nor areas of outstanding beauty."

The government's official line is to protect the government but ministers, including Alistair Darling and communities secretary Hazal Blears, have said they will not let attachment to the greenbelt prevent house building.

Responding to the SMF, housing and planning minister Baroness Andrews said the government's housing green paper contained "robust protections" of the greenbelt.

Baroness Andrews said: "We believe it is possible to build the homes future generations need whilst protecting the environment and green spaces.

"Our clear priority for development will remain brownfield land - already 74 per cent of new housing is being built on brownfield land, up from 57 per cent in 1997."

The Conservatives, however, argue the government is not absolutely committed to protecting the greenbelt, which they regard as essential for guarding against urban sprawl.

Shadow communities secretary Eric Pickles said: "I fear the greenbelt now faces a sustained assault from Labour's army of bulldozers and concrete mixers - with local communities powerless to resist Whitehall's Soviet-style targets.

"We need to build more homes and regenerate rundown communities – yet greenbelt protection must remain. The greenbelt defines and protects urban communities from sprawl."

Tory MP James Durridge, whose Essex constituency includes greenbelt land, highlighted other research claiming the countryside could be put at risk by the government's house building plans.

Mr Durridge said: "It is extremely important that Government plans for new houses in Southend and Rochford don’t damage the Essex countryside.

"I am concerned that not enough attention has been paid to the views of the planning experts who warn that intensive house building would result in damage to the greenbelt and increased flood risk."

Greenbelt, the company which owns and manages greenbelt land in the UK, said there was insufficient land available to meet the government's housing plans.

Managing director Alex Middleton told "While we recognise this presents challenges for communities across the UK, we know that successful solutions to creating attractive and sustainable new communities exist."

He said this would require communities, politicians and developers to work together to use available space effectively.

Mr Brown made housing an early priority for his government amid concern rising numbers of young people are priced out of the housing market.

The government believes rapidly increasing the supply of housing is the only way to stem rising prices, but believes many new homes can be built on previously developed land, including land owned by Whitehall departments., 15.08.2007

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