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17 January 2000

Stand by for the super new cities

John Prescott may soon approve the biggest building boom in history

By Simon Jones

What will England look like 15 years from now? If the house-building lobby gets its way, it will be changed beyond recognition by the biggest building programme in history. In little more than a decade, the equivalent of 13 cities the size of Southampton – containing 1.1 million houses – will be built in the South-east.

Nothing on this scale, or at this speed, has ever been attempted. But the builders may well get their way, thanks to two government inspectors who produced a blueprint for John Prescott. You might think that plans to transform the country and affect the lives of millions would go through some sort of democratic process. But no one is allowed to comment on the report that Stephen Crow and Rosamund Whittaker wrote after a public examination last summer, to which the invitees read like a Who’s Who of the house building industry and big business. Environmental interests were scantily represented, and local people almost absent. As the House Builders’ Federation PR man put it: “It was game, set and match to us.”

The report endlessly repeats the same mantra: nothing must stand in the way of business. The “engine of growth of the national economy” must regain its “premier status in the EU and world league”, which it cannot do without building on a great scale, because the South-east is where the jobs are and where people want to live. “There is a price to be paid for every material benefit in this world,” Crow reveals.

That price is steep. Four “areas of plan-led expansion” (ie, new towns) will go up round Ashford, Stansted, Gatwick and Milton Keynes, plus vast development along the “Thames gateway” east of London. Tens of thousands of houses will be built everywhere else. Everyone’s back yard will have to take its share – even greenbelts are up for grabs.

Crow petulantly defends all this: “Inevitably our report will be portrayed in some quarters as tending to the ‘concreting over’ of the countryside of the South-east. Fortunately, this rather silly and factually inaccurate expression was not used at the examination.”

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That may be because few of those present had much interest in holding back the bulldozers. At one session two people, from Friends of the Earth and the Council for the Protection of Rural England, faced Bellway Homes, Beazer Homes, Genesis Homes, Laing Homes, the House Builders’ Federation and the National Housing Federation. At another, the lone FoE representative was up against the CBI, the Freight Transport Association, Prudential, Railtrack, Glaxo, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s.

Crow claims a “need” for 1.1 million new houses by 2016, based on government projections. Yet these are merely assumptions based on past trends – and were recently corrected downwards. With hundreds of thousands of houses standing empty, this is not about homelessness; it is about building upmarket homes for the better-off.

If you think that is bad, listen to Sir Peter Hall, a member of the government’s Urban Task Force. He wants to go further, and suggests three super-cities: “City of Mercia”, from Milton Keynes to Northampton; “City of Anglia”, from Stevenage to Peterborough; and “City of Kent”, around Ashford, Dover and Folkestone. These would not be traditional conurbations, but clusters strung along roads and railways. Hall is contemptuous of those who disagree: “The argument is being orchestrated and railroaded by a very well-oiled machine. The whole thing is one-sided.” He is referring to the objectors, not the builders.

This is just the beginning. After 2016, so much wealth will have been created that there will be an explosive demand for second homes which must, naturally, be built. But we need not worry: South-east England, one of the most densely populated regions in the world, is “very, very rural”, says Hall. He adds: “We really have to go with economic and social trends.”

But this approach may just enrich a minority. If millions of people moved into a thriving South-east, places such as Tyneside or Manchester would get even poorer. The South-east would eventually be damaged by its own wealth, as prices and wages soared, overcrowding became intolerable, and schools, hospitals and other facilities came under strain.

David Miles, professor of economics at Imperial College, London, says Crow is full of “ludicrous arguments” that ignore basic economic principles; for example, that overcrowding is a disadvantage. Economists, he says, are waking up to the absurdity of “Stalinist central planning” which dictates that quotas for building vast numbers of houses must be met.

Miles sees a sound economic case for restrictions on building in the South-east, coupled with incentives for employers to go to more deprived areas, which have thousands of empty houses and underused infrastructure already in place. Jamie Gough, a specialist in regional development at the University of Northumbria, agrees: “If the government wants to avoid huge destruction of the countryside, it must take on business interests. If it can persuade employers to go outside the South-east, house builders will follow.”

In a few weeks, John Prescott will produce his own figures. After a brief public consultation he will make his announcement, probably by the summer.

Will he stand up to the developers? His record is not reassuring: he has already imposed thousands of unwanted houses on Sussex and Hertfordshire. And Labour’s reluctance to upset business is hardly new. But Prescott also knows that in the newly Labour-supporting shires, anything that erodes quality of life is a vote loser. Campaigners hope he will bear this in mind, because if Crow and his friends win the day, there won’t be much of rural England left to protect.