New homes plan thrown into chaos

Plans to build millions of homes across the UK have been thrown into doubt after damning criticism by two key government agencies.

The revelations strike at the heart of Labour's plans to solve Britain's housing crisis by building homes on swaths of wild countryside and will be acutely embarrassing for ministers.

Green Belt Threat

More than 4 million new homes are to be built across the nation. One project in the east of England - involving the construction of 500,000 homes - is regarded as the flagship project.

But the Countryside Agency and English Nature will warn in a joint report this week that the east of England plan poses 'serious risk' of damage to 'nationally important landscapes and habitats'.

The scheme would cause 'significant harm' because it would degrade the character of the English landscape, fragment natural habitats, and require water supplies that would have an unsustainable impact on the environment.

The report is a serious blow to the credibility of the government's promise to provide affordable housing.

The two agencies comprehensively condemn Labour's Sustainable Communities Plan and other national policy on which the regional development strategies are based. The government's approach is 'contrary to the concept of sustainability', they state.

'It seems it [the government] is not altogether serious about sustainable development and protecting the environment because it seems to think it can just plan and then pick up the pieces. The consequences are likely to be serious degradation of the quality of the environment and quality of life of people in the region,' said Henry Oliver of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

However the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister defended its policy. 'The pressure for new homes is not caused by the government but by an aging and growing population and more people living alone,' said a spokesman. 'Over the last 30 years we have seen a 30 per cent increase in the number of new households but a 50 per cent drop in the number of new homes being built. This is not sustainable development.'

The report will be given to the official inquiry into the east of England plans, set out in the regional spatial strategy (RSS), which opens on Tuesday. The plan, the biggest and the first to go to a full inquiry, proposes nearly half a million new homes, new industrial and business space and 67 road schemes.

Nationally the government's plans have been criticised for over-estimating the scale of building needed, concentrating too much development in the already crowded south east of England, and not insisting on tough enough environmental standards, such as low-energy design.

The Labour-dominated Environmental Audit Committee has also warned the environmental impacts 'deserve much greater consideration'.

In the latest report, the two government agencies, which are soon to merge, acknowledge 'a need to consider and accommodate development' and praise some aspects of the strategy 'which are commendable and are to be supported'. However they say there is an 'absence of evidence' that the plans will not damage 'core environmental assets' and that the independent sustainability appraisal warned of 'significant harm' to landscape, habitats, and water.

'Coming to a 'balance' implies trade-offs between competing objectives where it may be accepted that loss of one component will be necessary in order to achieve success within another,' says the report. Later it adds: 'Under proposed growth targets the ultimate effect of the RSS may not [authors' italics] be to ensure a more sustainable future for the region. Such an outcome would be contrary to the statutory purpose of the planning system ... Furthermore the agencies consider that some of the underpinning foundations of the plan do not afford sufficient regard or status to environmental and quality of life matters, and subsequently set an inappropriate context on which the strategy builds.'

The report instead calls for regions to assess how much growth their environment can cope with, then plan measures to mitigate 'justified' damage.

'We're not saying we don't want development,' said Graham Smith, an area manager for English Nature. 'We may need to adjust the rate at which we seek to do things in order that we don't sacrifice one objective at the altar of another.'

The panel of independent planning inspectors, appointed by the government, will report to the Deputy Prime Minister, who is expected to publish any changes next year, with a final report due in 2007., 30th Oct, 2005

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