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Crisis in housing means it's time to break the green belt taboo

It's no surprise that some people fear the chancellor might not after all remove VAT from refurbishment contracts in the Budget, and might not even juggle with the percentages - despite the bluster of the urban renaissance lobby.

The reunion of old task force members for a bout of concerted lobbying is not surprising either. What is surprising - in this era of confessional politics - is that nobody has actually admitted that the whole urban renaissance idea, from car-free towns bursting with brownfield towers, to the vision of wildlife wardens cycling to work in the countryside, was wrong-headed from beginning to end. It was always a typical product of architects and professors who were either too young to remember the level of national mobilisation necessary for a real public sector housing programme, or too old to be able to learn any new tricks to take account of changing circumstances. Now it turns out that just about the only thing they were really any good at was silencing rational opposition.

As a result, while for the past few years the public has been led to believe that huge sums of public money were just about to be pumped into city beautification projects all over the country, and every toxic waste dump would be turned into a high density sustainable millennium village, it turns out that none of this has actually happened. Instead, feasibility studies and some preliminary design work have been done (and paid for and published), and a new man from the Prince's Foundation has been put in charge of urban policy - but in the wrong ministry. All that has been achieved on the ground is that the phrase 'brownfield site' has joined the phrase 'sustainable development' in the dictionary of political words of infinitely elastic meaning.

In fact, as the increasingly realistic Joseph Rowntree Foundation has confirmed, we are heading for a major housing shortage and there is no way it can be averted - except by a building programme that drops the absurd requirement that most houses should be built on used sites. According to the Foundation, there will be a deficit of more than one million homes within 20 years unless the wildlife wardens move over and give developers a chance.

This is, of course, an emotive subject. The moment anyone starts talking about taking green belt land they are forced to listen to countless passionate speeches about the destruction of the countryside.

Yet it is precisely in the control and design of this rural development that planning could set the scene and architects deliver the goods. As countless chairborn economists have now discovered, agriculture is no longer the force it once was in the countryside. Farmers are no longer capable of herding or cropping profitably and many are presently paid simply to keep the hedges trim and the land tidy.

This means that the amount of land realistically available for development could be much larger than the practice of recent years would suggest. If rural housing densities of occupation were to be kept very low, and site sizes proportionally larger than at present, much of this housing could be inconspicuously sewn into the landscape, with each development possessed of sufficient planning space to allow for optimised solar orientation or other alternative energy requirements.

With such a tantalising rural alternative to the high-density urban model promoted in the first Blair government, but so woefully low on performance in the second, it might make more sense for the next public-private partnership experiment to consist of a discreet affordable housing project set in the folding hills of the south east. Just for the purpose of comparison, of course.

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